The Localised Olympic Games

February 16, 2010

The Vancouver Olympics were on last night at our house, I was watching the highlights of men mogul skiing where Canada took its first gold on home soil.  M. walked into the room and said “What sport is this?! I’ve never seen this before!” which I thought was odd as mogul skiing is pretty routine fare for the winter Olympics. But then I remembered an insight I had during the Beijing 2008 games, which we watched while in Italy that August: there is no such thing as “the Olympics,” unless you’re physically at the games watching a random distribution of events. The Olympics you see on TV are highly dependent on what country you’re watching from and the broadcasting network that has rights to them.

I realised this when the Italian coverage of the 2008 Olympics was light on gymnastics (something Italians are not very competitive in) and heavy on fencing (in which the Italians won 2 gold and 5 bronze medals). I realised that M. had probably never watched moguls because the Italians aren’t good at it. In fact, I checked it out and not a single Italian man qualified for the moguls, and just one Italian woman made it through the qualification round.

Least you think this is solely an Italian phenomenon, I remember as a kid thinking that the US won a medal in every single event. In retrospect, while it is true that Americans win a lot of medals, I’m sure that the coverage was particularly oriented to the sports Americans are most competitive in (which reminds me of an episode of 30 Rock where Kenneth the Page realises that NBC has created fake Olympic sports – like teatherball and octuplets tennis –  to boost perception of American medal standing). And last night, BBC Three was featuring the 34th ranked British downhill skier rather than broadcasting figure skating. Could it be because just one British pair featured in the programme?

So the Olympics are politicised and nationalistic, no news there. They have been so since the US and other Western nations boycotted the 1980 Moscow games, the Soviets / Eastern Bloc boycotted Los Angeles, and before. What’s interesting is that despite the world shrinking through the process of globalisation, where you’re watching still matters in determining the Olympics that you see. And that seems to me to be a nice anachronism: all Olympics are local.

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Isn’t it romantic?

February 11, 2010

Advertising on the London underground seems to follow distinct trends. Several months ago, a huge amount of advertising space was being dedicated to products that could rid your hands of germs, a nice marketing technique when the entire city was paralised with fear over swine flu. In the past month or so, the same advertising spaces have been replaced with a product that’s hoping you want to  get closer to your fellow human beings, not further away: online dating. The diversity in the ads is fantastic: my favourite was a dating site marketed exclusively for South Asians. But the one that caught my eye, and inspired me to write a Valentine’s Day post in its honour, was one for the American website eharmony.

Why did it catch my eye? Because it had an outrageous statistical claim (I am a social scientist, remember): 236  eharmony members get married a day in the US alone. According to company, that comprises 2% of American marriages. That seemed to me incredible. How could one single online dating site possibly account for such a large percentage of total marriages?

So, being the dork that I am, I checked the facts. According to the National Vital Statistics System (run by the Department of Health and Human Services), there were 2,162,000 marriages in the US in 2008. Assuming that eharmony’s stat means, as it seems to apply, 236 eharmony members get married every day, that does indeed work out to 2% of US marriages.

But as I started to do the math, the fact that the statistic was given in terms of the number of people (i.e. members) rather than the number of couples made me realise why the statistic was dodgy.  The statistic actually tells you nothing about what it is you really want to know, which is how many people find true love  using eharmony. All it tells you is that lots of people who are members of eharmony get married. Nothing about whether they marry other eharmony members, or instead whether they signed up to eharmony at 3am on a Saturday night as a drunken dare with their friends and never looked at the site again, and sometime later met the man / woman of their dreams while riding the tube and married them. In fact, given that the first step in the eharmony process (filing in a profile and becoming a member) is free, it’s easy to understand why this number might be exceptionally inflated.

What the statistic does tell you that at some point in their lives, lots of adult Americans are signed up to eharmony (about 2% of the actively marrying population). But whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing depends a bit on whether you think that finding Mrs Right is like finding a needle in the haystack, or a different challenge entirely.