Explainer Mailbag: Medalling Kids?

Explainer Mailbag: Medalling Kids?

Explainer Mailbag: Medalling Kids?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Feb. 22 2002 4:41 PM

Explainer Mailbag: Medalling Kids?

Through Thursday, the United States had netted an astonishing 30 medals in the Winter Olympics—10 golds, 11 silvers, and nine bronzes. Only a few Olympics back, in 1988, the U.S. won just six medals, only one of which was gold, reader Steve Horvat notes. What happened in the intervening 14 years?

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"One obvious answer, though I have not seen anyone mention it, is that we are doing better in all the sports added to the Olympics in recent years," Horvat writes. "Thus, the question that no one else is answering: Have we really done that much 'better' than we did in 1988? How many medals has the United States Olympic team won in sports that were Olympic events in 1988?"

Fifteen, to answer the second question first. Through Thursday, the U.S. medal count was evenly split between "old-school" events (from 1988 and before) and "new-school" events (post-'88). The old-school medals came in alpine skiing, figure skating, speed skating, and luge. The new-school medals came in women's bobsled, aerials skiing, moguls skiing, short-track speed skating, skeleton, snowboarding, and women's ice hockey. Explainer counts skeleton as "new-school" even though it appeared in two previous Olympic Games, in 1928 and 1948. (And Olympic conspiracy buffs may want to note that Americans have taken home half of all the skeleton medals ever won.)

Fifteen medals would bring the U.S. total closer to where it has been since '88—11 medals in 1992, 13 in '94, and 13 in '98. So, yes, the United States does disproportionately well in events added in recent years—nabbing five medals for events that are new to 2002, for example, and six more medals this year for events that were added in 1998.

But even if you take away those medals, the United States is performing better than it did in the past four Olympics, when it finished ninth, fifth, fifth, and fifth in the overall medal count. (Currently, the United States sits in second place.) Although the new events have helped, there's something else at work, too: home-field advantage. The last time the United States finished second in the medal count was 1960, when the Winter Olympics were held in Squaw Valley. And the only time the United States finished first was 1932, when the Olympics were held in Lake Placid.

Reader Jon Bourgault continues the Olympic theme, asking why men and women compete separately in curling. "This doesn't seem to be a sport where strength matters—rather, the necessary qualities seem to be dexterity, control, and finesse," he writes. "So what's the rationale for separating the sexes?"

Explainer hasn't tracked down the official rationale for curling's sexual segregation, but it's worth noting that Joseph Nocera made a similar complaint in Slate a couple of years ago about billiards, in the excellently titled "Chicks With Sticks." "Billiards is one sport where brute strength is of no particular advantage (except when breaking, but even then the advantage is minimal)," Nocera wrote. "What matters is touch, creative shot-making, instincts, etc.—all qualities where men have no advantage over women." Don't the bodies that govern these sports know that separate is inherently unequal? One Olympic sport that allows the sexes to compete on equal footing: two-seater luge.

Finally, one of the most oft-asked questions in Explainer's inbox since Sept. 11 has been: If male Islamic martyrs receive a reward of 72 virgins in the afterlife, what do female Islamic martyrs receive? (Punch line: a headache.) U.S. News uncovered the answer this week, citing "Israeli counterterror experts": "If a woman is single, her family waits for her up above to be by her side for all eternity. If she's a widow, her dead husband joins her in the afterlife." To which Explainer asks: You have to be a martyr to get that?