OLYMPICS CONTINUUM: What was Team USA’s Best Slugging Percentage? You’d be surprised…

It’s time for OLYMPICS CONTINUUM. Today, I was just thinking: “How can you measure what team has had the best Olympics?” There are several methods, of course, and technically the Olympics aren’t even about winning or losing, officially, especially outside of individual events. For example, medal tables are done entirely by the media, not the IOC.

So… is it what country has the most golds? What country has the most overall medals? Some type of points system?

Then, I realized: Winning a medal is like getting a hit in baseball. And so, I provide you with THE OLYMPIC SLUGGING PERCENTAGE. 

As you are on a baseball blog, you probably know how slugging percentage is calculated, but if you aren’t normally up on baseball stats here’s the formula:

In essence, it weighs how good each hit is done, and that, divided by how many times they were at the plate, determines the slugging percentage. The greatest slugging percentage ever, for example, is held by Babe Ruth, who had a .690 career slugging percentage.

Of course, there are some problems with adapting this to the Olympics. For example, obviously winning gold is a “Home Run”, but what are silver and bronze? Well, my way of thinking is that obviously winning gold is far bigger than just winning a silver, so, for the sake of this article, a silver is equivalent of a double, with a bronze a single. And “AB” is instead replaced by “total number of medals awarded”. Due to the fact that, of course, in many events a “sweep” is impossible, this means that it would be impossible for any team to have a perfect score. So, here are Team USA’s “slugging percentage” in all Olympic Games both Summer and Winter… after the jump:

GLOSSARY OF NOTES:

(B) BOYCOTTED GAMES- Games where there were large (3+ countries) boycotting, including 1956’s Summer Games (when Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon boycotted over the Suez Crisis, the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland boycotted due to the USSR’s presence at the games, and the People’s Republic of China withdrew due to Taiwan being at the games), 1976’s Summer Games (when 22 African countries boycotted over how New Zealand was not censured for having participated in sporting events with Apartheid-era South Africa), 1980’s Summer Games (where up to 65 countries- depending on count- boycotted over the Invasion of Afghanistan), 1984’s Summer Games (when nearly all Communist nations boycotted and Iran and Libya also boycotted, albeit for other reasons) and 1988’s Summer Games (when eight countries, most notably Cuba and North Korea, boycotted for reasons connected the division of the Korean Peninsula). I’m not including smaller instances of boycotts, such as Spain and Ireland’s boycotts of the 1936 Berlin Games (for different reasons), nor am I counting de-facto boycotts like the fact the USSR just didn’t want to participate until the 1950s or how the Chinese more-or-less withdrew from the Olympics from 1952 to 1980 in protest of Taiwan’s participation.

(E) MAJOR COUNTRIES EXCLUDED BY IOC- for example, after WWI and WWII, Germany was banned from the Olympics for a time. Note that this does NOT count the non-inclusion of South Africa from 1964 to 1988… that’s covered under SAB.

(H) HOME OLYMPICS

(SAB) South Africa banned. From 1964 to 1988, the Apartheid South Africans were banned from the Olympic Movement. As they are not a major medal winner like, say, Germany, I didn’t include them under E. I also don’t use this for Winter Olympics, since South Africa isn’t much of a Winter Sports country.

(BL) Indicates the games took place before the 1908 London Olympics, the first Olympics that could truly be said to have been something like what we know today- before them the Olympics were often disorganized, lacked many of the world’s best athletes, were treated as sideshows to World’s Fairs, or, in some cases, all three.

1.1904 Summer (St. Louis) 1.9821 (H) (BL)

2.1932 Winter (Lake Placid) 0.8095 (H)

3.1932 Summer (LA) 0.7456 (H)

4.1984 Summer (LA) 0.7034 (H) (B) (SAB)

5.1924 Summer (Paris) 0.6904 (E)

6.1920 Summer (Antwerp) 0.5580 (E)

7.1948 Summer (London) 0.5474 (E)

8.1968 Summer (Mexico City) 0.5123 (SAB)

9.1896 Summer (Athens) 0.4918 (BL)

10.1952 Summer (Helsinki) 0.4684

11.1912 Summer (Stockholm) 0.4612

12.1964 Summer (Tokyo) 0.444 (SAB)

13.1900 Summer (Paris) 0.4402 (BL)

14.1952 Winter (Oslo) 0.4328

15.1928 Summer (Amsterdam) 0.4281

16.1960 Summer (Rome) 0.4208

17.1956 Summer (Melbourne) 0.4157 (B)

18.1908 Summer (London) 0.3962

19.1936 Summer (Berlin) 0.3814

20.1976 Summer (Montreal) 0.3768 (B) (SAB)

21.1972 Summer (Munich) 0.3733 (SAB)

22.1928 Winter (St. Moritz) 0.3414

23.2002 Winter (Salt Lake City) 0.3290 (H)

24.1948 Winter (St. Moritz) 0.3235 (E)

25.1988 Summer (Seoul) 0.3153 (B) (SAB)

26.1996 Summer (Atlanta) 0.3147 (H)

27.1992 Summer (Barcelona) 0.3104

28.2010 Winter (Vancouver) 0.3062

29.1980 Winter (Lake Placid) 0.2956 (H)

30.1960 Winter (Squaw Valley) 0.2839 (H)

31.2012 Summer (London) 0.2817

32.2004 Summer (Athens) 0.2675

33.2008 Summer (Beijing) 0.2672

34.2000 Summer (Sydney) 0.2459

35.2006 Winter (Torino) 0.2420

36.1956 Winter (Cortina) 0.222

37.1984 Winter (Sarajevo) 0.2051

38.1976 Winter (Innsbruck) 0.1981

39.1994 Winter (Lillehammer) 0.1967

40.1924 Winter (Chamonix) 0.1836 (E)

41.1972 Winter (Sapporo) 0.1809

42.1992 Winter (Albertville) 0.1754

43.1998 Winter (Nagano) 0.1658

44.1968 Winter (Grenoble) 0.1415

45.1936 Winter (Garmisch-Partenkirchen) 0.1372

46.1988 Winter (Calgary) 0.1231

47.1964 Winter (Innsbruck) 0.1067

N/A.1980 Summer (Moscow)

…So, there you go. The greatest Olympics in Slugging Percentage for Team USA was in 1904 and the worst (with the exception of the 1980 boycott) was the Winter Games of 1964…. only it isn’t that simple. The top of the list is full of “buts”, and the changes of Team USA’s slugging percentage over time (especially in Summer) would indicate that American Olympic Sports have been on a downward trend for decades.

I’ll explain:

The Early Olympics Were A Joke

The first three modern Olympic games were varying degrees of a joke. This isn’t to disparage anyone who was in them, but it’s the truth. For all the crap that the World Baseball Classic has gotten, that the Pro Bowl gets, and the pre-Opening Ceremony worst-case scenarios give modern Olympic Game hosts, the earliest Olympics were much, much worse.

The 1896 Olympics in Athens were pretty successful, to be sure, but they were hardly a paradigm of stability or of the best competition mankind had to offer, even for their day, with most top competitors not even showing up for the games.

But it went downhill fast, with the 1900 and 1904 games being disgraces to the history of the Olympics, poorly-organized events that were held over the space of months as sideshows to World’s Fairs, with some athletes not even knowing they were taking part in the Olympics. And the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis were the worst of the bunch, sounding more like some sort of madcap comedy or parody of the Olympics than something that really happened:

  • There was a wooden-legged gymnast… who won six medals.
  • There was a marathon that featured one competitor who rode in a car for nine miles of the race, a winner who nearly died because he’d had a strychnine-and-brandy cocktail as a performance enhancer, a Cuban postman who lost the race because he decided to take a break and eat an apple which ended up giving him a stomach-ache, two “African tribesmen” who were at the World’s Fair as part of a sideshow exhibit (they weren’t even tribesmen, they were students), and, let’s not forget, dust clouds kicked up by officials driving ahead in cars.
  • Half of the events played had no competitors from outside the United States.
  • Only 52 athletes from outside of North America even showed up.
  • There were “Anthropology Days” where indigenous peoples from around the world played against each other in events like rock throwing and spear-chucking. Thankfully, these have seemingly been expunged from the Olympic record completely.
  • It wasn’t even supposed to be in St. Louis in the first place- Chicago had gotten the games, but the IOC shifted them to St. Louis when the heads of the World’s Fair threatened to start their own international sports competitions.

So, yeah, with all of those things in the picture, it doesn’t seem right to say that the 1904 Olympics were America’s best Olympics ever.

The Great Depression Games

The 1932 Olympics in Lake Placid (Winter) and Los Angeles (Summer) also have a big asterisk next to them. Taking place in the middle of the Great Depression, few competitors from elsewhere were able to afford the trip, although not to the extreme extent of 1904.

Boycotts, Bans, and What-Not

The next four Olympics on the list of best USA “slugging percentages” also have caveats, mainly being boycotts and bans- 1984, of course, had every Communist country besides Romania boycotting, while 1920 and 1948 had the losing countries of the World Wars missing, banned as punishment for the wars. Considering how successful teams like Germany are at the Olympics, that also means a lower degree of difficulty.

Enough excuses, what’s the best Olympic showing in US history!

Well, going by the statistics, the greatest showing by Team USA in the Olympics was the 1968 games in Mexico City. Sure, South Africa wasn’t there, but they were hardly a giant medal threat. While now more remembered for Smith and Carlos’ Black Power salute and Bob Beamon’s record-shattering long jump, Team USA’s performance in Mexico City was an impressive 45 gold, 28 silver, 33 bronze performance.

Except, and this is important: As the eras have changed, the “slugging percentages” have gone down.

Much like how in baseball there have been several statistical eras, one could argue that the Olympics have had similar eras. And the current era we’re in is one of lower slugging percentages, especially in Summer games. Team USA, for example, dominated London 2012, with eight more golds than second-place China and 16 more overall. And yet, by slugging percentage, it was the fourth-worst appearance by Team USA in the Summer Olympics. And it’s not like it’s just the USA- no countries ever gets high “slugging percentages” anymore, at least as compared to earlier Olympics.

I have a few theories as to why this is:

  • More countries now take part, so of course there is now more competition for spots on the podium and also to participate in the first place. Let’s say that Sport X allows for 40 participants. To allow for a better chance for countries from around the globe to participate in Sport X, where once perhaps each country could qualify up to three athletes not they may only be able to qualify only two. This can be seen, for example, in sports like diving and table tennis, which are dominated by China but where restrictions on the amount of athletes any one country can qualify for each event means that they never are able to sweep them, despite the fact they probably could.
  • Connected to that, the dissolution of the Soviet Union and to a lesser extent Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia lead to more players and teams playing that would not have been able to play before. For example, it is entirely possible that this year’s Olympic Hockey Tournament could have the Czech Republic and Slovakia both get medals… when before 1993 they would have just had one team, allowing another team to have reached the podium that would have come in fourth this year.
  • There are more sports being added to the Olympics, and so it’s hard for anybody to “keep up” the pace.

That said, Team USA has steadily gotten better in Winter Olympics

Here’s a graph of Team USA’s Winter Olympics slugging percentage:

Screen Shot 2014-02-11 at 10.15.03 PM

Click to make larger.

Notice anything? Like, for example, how after about 1988 the “slugging percentage” for Team USA in the Winter Olympics has been on an upward trend. Well, you are correct, and there are a few reasons for this, but I believe the biggest reason is the X-Gamesization of the Winter Games. Just look at the medal tables today, and you’d see that if not X-Games style sports like snowboarding, slopestyle skiing and freestyle skiing, the United States of America would currently, as of 10:36 Eastern Time of February 11, 2014, have a grand total of three medals, not the seven they actually have.

However, it is starting to look like the rest of the world is catching up with America when it comes to the extreme sports. Today, for the first time, not one American man found a space on the podium of the Snowboard Halfpipe. Does this mean that America’s Olympic “slugging percentage” is about to dip in winter again?

Only time will tell.

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