Tag Archives: sports

And the olympic winner is… the Soviet Union?

With the Olympics wrapping up many countries will be looking at the final ranking and assessing how well they did. Already the spin wars are brewing. A few American newspapers are trying to talk up a favourable story for the United States by emphasizing certain aspects of America’s medal tally: more gender parity in its medals, lots of team medals which only count for one even though lots of athletes get medals.

Others – including some other American newspapers and the official Olympics Medal Standings – recognize the dramatic rise of China and prioritize rank according to Gold Medals won.

But for all the talk of the rise of China and its challenge to the United States, one simple fact remains, much of this jostling for position is made possible because the USSR has been wiped off the map.

Indeed what is amazing – and has gone relatively ignored –  is how well the USSR would have done at the Beijing games were it still intact.

Admittedly it would still have trailed China in Gold Medals won – 44 (USSR) to 51 (China) – but it would still have bested the United States 36. However, it is over in total medals won where the USSR would have crushed everyone. Combined, the countries of the former Soviet Union won an astounding 175 medals in Beijing, leaving both America (110) and China (100) far in its (theoretical) wake. Indeed even using the New York Times scoring system (gold = 4 points, silver=2 points and bronze=1 point) the mighty USSR athletic machine would again crush the competition 353 points to China’s 274 and America’s 256.

What makes this feat all the more impressive is that their combined population has not grown (indeed it is in decline in most places), nor, I imagine, has funding for sports likely improved all the much. If anything, things are likely more difficult vis-a-vis funding – particularly in relation to the sums invested by the Americans and the Chinese. A sporting generation has passed since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 – indeed many of those competing probably can’t even remember those calamitous events 17(!) years ago. What keeps the USSR a formidable Olympic contender? Is it the social capital of trainers, coaches and professionals, is the the legacy of physical infrastructure or a political culture that rewarded athletic excellence? It would be interesting to know – somehow a centrally planned approach for creating Olympic success has survived its apparent balkanization and decent into decentralization exceedingly well.

The table below, and so much of the work for this post, was done by Richard Dice who tabulated all the data and kindly forwarded it to me. Thank you Richard.

Current Rankings
Gold Silver Bronze Total
USA 1 36 38 36 110
China 2 51 21 28 100
Soviet Republics Rankings
Gold Silver Bronze Total
Russia 3 24 21 28 73
Ukraine 9 7 5 16 28
Belarus 13 4 5 10 19
Kazakhstan 19 2 4 7 13
Azerbaijan 27 1 2 4 7
Lithuania 27 0 3 4 7
Georgia 31 3 0 3 6
Uzbekistan 31 1 2 3 6
Armenia 31 0 0 6 6
Latvia 51 1 1 1 3
Estonia 57 1 1 0 2
Kyrgyzstan 57 0 1 1 2
Tajikistan 57 0 1 1 2
Moldova 69 0 0 1 1
USSR 44 46 85 175
Hypothetical Ranking by Medals
Gold Silver Bronze Total
USSA 1 44 46 85 175
USA 2 36 38 36 110
China 3 51 21 28 100
Hypothetical Rankings by Golds
Country Golds Ranking
China 51 1
USSR 44 2
USA 36 3
Hypothetica NYT Rankings
Country Medal Points Ranking
USSR 353 1
China 274 2
USA 256 3

The Smyth Deal: The Anatomy of a Positional Negotiation Gone Wrong

A classic negotiation challenge is when parties lock into positions. Both sides articulate a demand – usually followed a threat such as “take it or leave it” – and then hopes the other side blinks first.

In the case of Ryan Smyth and the Edmonton Oilers’ I can almost imagine each parties’ statement. Smyth’s agent probably declared “my player is worth $6M dollars not a penny less – take it or leave it.” While the Oiler representative said “we can afford $5M and not a penny more – otherwise, we’ll go to the trading block.” Then, with both sides locked into a price, two things probably happened. First, the negotiation was restricted to a discussion about money to the detriment of the parties numerous other interests. Second, any change in either parties’ position would cause them to lose credibility and/or face. Consequently, any progress in the negotiation would have paradoxically increased the level distrust by confirming each party’s suspicion that the other could and would bend more.

And of course, this is what happened. Smyth was willing to accept less, and the Oiler’s were willing to pay more. A fact made evident as they managed to haggle their way to a difference of $5.4M and $5.5M per year. But getting closer probably had the perverse effect of making the negotiation harder. Each concession made the subsequent ‘demands’ appear less credible and firm. So, to prove that this was indeed ‘their final offer’ each side had to appear more and more inflexible. The result? A negotiation that collapses over a disagreement of $100,000 a year or $500,000 over the life of the contract – about 1.8% of the deals’ monetary value. Oiler’s GM Ken Lowe’s statement this was “a hockey decision and not a financial decision’ is laughable. This was neither a hockey or a financial decision – it was en ego decision.

Indeed, a tearful Smyth was more honest. While getting on a plane at Edmonton International Airport he summed up the process by virtually pulling the definition of positional negotiation out of a textbook: “We were stuck in our concrete, they were stuck in theirs.” (Edmonton Journal) Interestingly, the very fact that Smyth was crying indicates that, while both parties were arguing over money, financial concerns probably only made up a small fraction of each party’s numerous and complex interests.

To contrast against their positions I’ve quickly brainstormed the following list of each party’s core interests:


Ryan Smyth’s Interests


Oiler’s Interests

  • Maximize (or receive fair?) compensation
  • Set precedent for future negotiations
  • Stay close to/not have to relocate, family
  • Maintain links to community
  • Play on winning team
  • Play on Stanley Cup contender
  • Profitable franchise
  • Increase franchise’s marketability
  • Increase personal marketability
  • Increase interest in hockey
  • Play in a market where hockey is a major sport
  • Minimize (or pay fair?) compensation
  • Set precedent for future negotiations
  • Profitable franchise
  • Field a winning team under the salary cap
  • Field a Stanley Cup contender
  • Increase franchise’s marketability
  • Increase Smyth’s personal marketability
  • Increase interest in hockey
  • Maintain/improve morale of team and fans
  • Strong positive presence in the community

As you can see, money makes up only one (albeit important) piece of the puzzle. But in both cases numerous other issues whose value cannot be easily quantified also factor importantly.

For example, one wonders if $100,000 a year (our of $5.4M!) was worth forgoing if it allowed Smyth’s to keep his family in Alberta and stay close to them (especially given the after tax value of the $100K). Smyth probably also had an interest in maintaining/continuing his community work in Edmonton, a place he likely genuinely considers home (unlike Long Island). Smyth probably also had an interest in ensuring that the Oilers have enough money under the cap to acquire other key players that would have given him the chance to hold up a Stanley Cup.

Meanwhile, the Oiler management likely have an interest in players that are marketable and increase the profile of the team in the community (which Smyth is uniquely positioned to do). One wonders how much the lost revenue from merchandising will cost the Oilers. In a small market a local town hero can be worth their weigh in gold (and then some).

The point is that Smyth and the Oiler’s had relatively few conflicting interests compared to those that were either common or simply different (but not conflicting). Had both parties looked at their full range of interests, and not focused almost exclusively on money, it’s hard to imagine that some creative value-increasing options were not possible. For example: the difference of $100,000 could have been donated to a charity of Smyth choice every year – thus helping Smyth’s marketability, improving both his and the Oiler’s standing in the community all while not contributing to the salary cap. Or the $100,000 could have been converted into bonus pay contingent on Smyth’s performance. Ultimately, two negotiators thinking creatively about this negotiation as a collective challenge, and not locked into an ego-driven game of chicken, could have found a deal. But then Smyth’s agent is probably rewarded based on the money he pulls down and the Oiler’s manager on how much money he saves, so in the end money drove the negotiations… right over the cliff.

[tags]NHL, negotitation, negotiating, Ryan Smyth, Oilers, Edmonton, mozilla, sports, hockey [/tags]