The Hidden Complexity of the Olympics

By Sean Carroll | August 19, 2008 12:16 pm

Chad laments that we don’t hear that much about the decathlon any more, because Americans aren’t really competitive. I also think it’s a shame, because any sport in which your score can be a complex number deserves more attention.

Yes, it’s true. The decathlon combines ten different track and field events, so to come up with a final score we need some way to tally up all of the individual scores so that each event is of approximately equal importance. You know what that means: an equation. Let’s imagine that you finish the 100 meter dash in 9.9 seconds. Then your score in that event, call it x, is x = 9.9. This corresponds to a number of points, calculated according to the following formulas:

points = α(x0x)β   for track events,

points = α(xx0)β   for field events.

That’s right — power laws! With rather finely-tuned coefficients, although it’s unclear whether they occur naturally in any compactification of string theory. The values of the parameters α, x0 and β are different for each of the ten events, as this helpful table lifted from Wikipedia shows:

100 m25.437181.81seconds
Long Jump0.143542201.4centimeters
Shot Put51.391.51.05meters
High Jump0.8465751.42centimeters
400 m1.53775821.81seconds
110 m Hurdles    5.74352   28.5   1.92   seconds
Discus Throw12.9141.1meters
Pole Vault0.27971001.35centimeters
Javelin Throw10.1471.08meters
1500 m0.037684801.85seconds

The goal, of course, is to get the most points. Note that for track events, your goal is to get a low score x (running fast), so the formula involves (x0x); in field events you want a high score (throwing far), so the formula is reversed, (xx0). Don’t ask me how they came up with those exponents β.

You might think the mathematics consultants at the International Olympic Committee could tidy things up by just using an absolute value, |xx0|β. But those athletes are no dummies. If you did that, you could start getting great scores by doing really badly! Running the 100 meter dash in 100 seconds would give you 74,000 points, which is kind of unfair. (The world record is 8847.)

However, there remains a lurking danger. What if I did run a 100-second 100 meter dash? Under the current system, my score would be an imaginary number! 61237.4 – 41616.9i, to be precise. I could then argue with perfect justification that the magnitude of my score, |61237.4 – 41616.9i |, is 74,000, and I should win. Even if we just took the real part, I come out ahead. And if those arguments didn’t fly, I could fall back on the perfectly true claim that the complex plane is not uniquely ordered, and I at least deserve a tie.

Don’t be surprised if you see this strategy deployed, if not now, then certainly in 2012.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Humor, Mathematics, Sports

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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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