Questions from the first two days of the 2018 Winter Olympics

Over the first two days of the 2018 Winter Olympics, I got a bunch of questions:

  • How good should we feel about North and South Korea marching and competing together?
  • Why is the Korean Women’s Hockey team wearing more visible shin guards than the Swiss team?
  • What’s up with athletes wearing tape on their faces?
  • Is mixed doubles curling really a thing? Why does gender matter in curling at all?

I love getting questions! Keep sending them, please!

How good should we feel about North and South Korea marching and competing together?

Eh… one never really knows when it comes to war and peace and geopolitical affairs… but probably not all that good. Yes, it’s amazing to see athletes wearing a uniform that shows the entirety of the Korean peninsula on it and to imagine what this might mean to Korean communities or families that have endured a 50+ year militarized split.  On the other hand, as I learned in Uri Friedman’s excellent article on this topic for the Atlantic, this is not the first time North and South Korea have come together for the Olympics. Actually, it’s the ninth time it’s happened since 2000. This dims my hope for the symbolic gesture to turn into something more meaningful when the games are over. My thoughts are drawn back four years to Sochi – a time of relative peace in Russia – followed almost immediately by a semi-covert invasion of Ukraine when the games were done. If there’s even a slim chance that some good will come of it, it’s still probably worth it, but it does feel particularly unfair to the South Korean hockey teams whose team chemistry has been interrupted by the political injection of North Korean players just a few weeks before the biggest tournament of their lives.

Why is the Korean Women’s Hockey team wearing more visible shin guards than the Swiss team?

Aha! I was not the only one watching the Korean women’s team get their tournament started with an 8-0 loss to Switzerland. In ice hockey some defenders who specialize in blocking shots do wear bulkier shin guards than other players. Cheaper shin guards also tend to be bigger than more expensive ones. In this case though, I think you were fooled by an optical illusion caused by a design choice made by whoever designed the Korean uniforms. I think you were seeing a vertical white line on the Korean socks, not their shin guards. The Swiss team wore a more traditional horizontal stripe.

What’s up with athletes wearing tape on their faces?

I know, right?

Czech Republic’s Marketa Davidova competes in the women’s 7,5 km sprint biathlon event during the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games on February 10, 2018, in Pyeongchang. / AFP PHOTO / Odd ANDERSENODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images

Apparently, according to Tara Parker-Pope in her article for the New York Times, this is something athletes are doing to try to stay warm. This is the first Winter Olympics in a while that’s actually, you know, cold. So, we’re seeing Olympic teams doing all kinds of things to try to get an edge. This includes breathing through a “respiratory heat exchanger,” wearing electric coats, and taping, or more traditionally greasing, up any exposed skin, including faces. It may not be the most telegenic tactic but if it helps, you know it’s going to be popular!

Is mixed doubles curling really a thing? Why does gender matter in curling at all?

Okay, fine, I’ll admit it. I asked this question on Facebook and got a bunch of responses from friends. It was an excellent turn of the tables compared to my normal mode when it comes to questions about sports. A Facebook friend linked me to Liz Clarke’s Washington Post article, “In Olympic Curling, men and women are not created equal.” Clarke, who I am 100% confident approached this subject from a position of great skepticism, included this infuriating quote from “Kyle Paquette, director of sports science for Curling Canada”:

It’s not simply that Canada’s top male skips (the chief strategist of a curling team) are more aggressive play callers than the top female skips. The difference is more nuanced, according to [Paquette,] suggesting to some that top male curling skips may see angles better and anticipate three or four shots ahead better than their female counterparts.

Oh, really? Men are just naturally better tacticians, huh? We must be genetically selected for it after all those millennia of throwing rocks at each other, right? Aghghghhhghhh! You don’t think that maybe it has something to do with boys being given more encouragement, more practice time, better coaches, better equipment, and greater rewards for success from a very early age? Director of sports science? How do I get that job?


Hope you have a wonderful Olympics-filled Sunday. Keep the questions coming!

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

Is there really not enough parity in women's soccer?

One of the common criticisms of women’s soccer, once you get by all of the more virulently idiotic bigoted nonsense, is that women’s soccer tournaments, like the World Cup, aren’t as exciting as men’s tournaments because there isn’t enough parity. This criticism contends that the strong teams are too strong and too few and the rest of the teams are too weak. As a result, the World Cup or Olympics are long periods of boring cake-walks of the great teams over the poor with only a few games of evenly matched soccer in the semifinals and finals. It’s unclear whether people who subscribe to this line of thought believe that an ideal tournament would be made up of completely even teams or if they believe in some ideal distribution of skill.

No matter, what I was curious about and what I wanted to see was how the frequently criticized women’s World Cup would compare to the men’s edition of the tournament. To do that, I took data from the Group Stage of this year’s women’s World Cup and the 1982 men’s World Cup held in Spain. Why 1982? Aside from it being my birth year, like this year’s women’s tournament, 1982 was the first time the men’s field expanded from 16 teams to 24. Like in Canada this year, the expansion in 1982 opened the World Cup to a number of countries who had never made the field before.

New countries:

  • 1982 men’s World Cup – Algeria, Cameroon, Honduras, Kuwait and New Zealand
  • 2015 women’s World Cup – Cameroon, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Ivory Coast, Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland, Thailand

This difference can be attributed to the much longer history of men’s World Cups before expanding to 24. The men’s World Cup began in 1930 and was held 11 times while it grew from 13 to 24. The women’s World Cup was first held in 1991 with a field of 12 and took only six tournaments to expand to 24 teams.

In order to determine parity, I took the scores of the Group stage games and analyzed them. If women’s soccer is truly evolving in a less competitive (and therefore exciting) way, we’d expect there to be more blow-outs and fewer closely fought matches. We’d expect to see more games like Germany’s 10-0 beat-down of Thailand in 2015 than we would Hungary’s 10-1 beat-down of El Salvador in 1982. The first way I broke out the games was by goal differential — 0 if the two teams tied, 1 if the winning team scored one goal more than the losing team, regardless if that was a 1-0 win, a 2-1 win, or a 11-10 win (there are none of those in soccer.)

1982 men’s World Cup goal differential

  • 0 – 12 games – 33%
  • 1 – 11 games – 31%
  • 2 – 4 games – 11%
  • 3 – 6 games – 17%
  • >3 – 3 games – 8%

2015 women’s World Cup goal differential

  • 0 – 10 games – 28%
  • 1 – 15 games – 42%
  • 2 – 3 games – 8%
  • 3 – 0 games – 0%
  • >3 – 8 games – 22%

How you read these numbers depends entirely on how you perceive two goal and three goal games. If you think a 2-0 game or a 3-0 game is a blow-out and not exciting, then you’d conclude that the women’s game is more exciting in 2015 than the men’s game was in 1982. A full 70% of all the group games in 2015 were decided by less than two goals, while only 64% were that close in 1982. If, however, you think that anything less than a four goal difference is representative of a pretty even matchup, you’d conclude that there are almost three times more blow-outs in the women’s 2015 World Cup than in the men’s 1982 World Cup. As with almost anything, you can interpret the data how you want. I would argue that a three goal differential is enormous in soccer and unlikely to occur between teams of close to even strength. As such, my conclusion is that, while there are a few more severely lopsided games in 2015 women’s competition than there were in men’s competition in 1982, there are also more very close games in 2015 than in 1982.

Another way to look at the same data is to focus not on goal differential but on the most common soccer scores: 0-0, 1-0, 1-1, 2-1, and 2-0. When I looked at the data that way, I discovered that exactly the same percent of the games in both tournaments fell within that range – 66%. There was some variety within those scores but not enough to seem meaningful in any way.

Overall, the 2015 Group Stage games were a little bit more high scoring (107 goals compared to 100) and although there were a few more closely competitive games, there were also a few more wild blow-outs which led to a higher average goal differential (1.75 in 2015 compared to 1.5 in 1982.) Frankly, it’s quite surprising how similar the numbers are across gender and generations. The women’s game in 2015 is not as evenly matched as the men’s game in 2015 is but it’s basically exactly where the men’s game was in 1982 when its World Cup expanded to 24 teams and the women’s game has arrived at this point much faster.

All the data I got for this post was taken from the Wikipedia entries for the 1982 men’s World Cup and 2015 women’s World Cup. You can view or copy the data here. Please give attribution if you use it.

Playing the pronoun game in sports writing

Women don’t have it equal when it comes to sports. This is an enormous topic and one that can’t be addressed in a single post. One small piece of gender inequality has been bothering me lately, in part because it’s something I’ve been doing on this website. It’s about how and when I use pronouns to label sporting events. I, like so many other writers, have a tendency to use a gender pronoun only when discussing women’s sports. We’ll write about the “Women’s World Cup” but when it’s time for the men to play, we just write, “World Cup.” This may seem like a small thing, but it has far reaching implications. By making male the default gender of sports, we make it easy to people to simply forget that women’s sports exists. Valerie Alexander wrote a wonderful essay about this topic in which she points out that although people frequently refer to Landon Donovan as the United States’ all-time international scoring leader, he’s not. He’s actually not even in the top five, all of whom are women. Abby Wambach, the veteran leader of the United States Women’s National team is actually the all-time world leader with 177 goals. That’s a 100 more than Pele! Allowing male to be the default gender in sports becomes a vicious cycle with real material consequences. Just this week, Allison McCann wrote a response to sports stats guru Nate Silver‘s claim that “Sports has awesome data.” McCann responds by saying that Silver left off a word in his claim — “men’s sports has awesome data,” not women’s sports. The pronoun makes all the difference. When applied to talking about a romantic partner, the pronoun game is something people do to obscure the gender of their partner. In sports, the pronoun game is an evil little careless thing we do that helps make sports an uneven ground for women to participate in. Today, I’m pledging to do my best to stop playing that game on this website.

Every week-day morning I post a sports forecast. The forecast consists of a two to three-minute podcast in which I quickly run through the best and highest profile sporting events of the day, where they are being televised, who the interesting characters are, or what the plot of the games might be. To go along with this, I post just the most basic information about the games I cover in the podcast, as text in the sports forecast post. These lines follow a predictable pattern:

  • Sport – Away Team at Home Team, Time on TV Channel.

To use an example from today’s forecast:

  • NBA Basketball – Miami Heat at New Orleans Pelicans, 8 p.m. ET on ESPN.

Although male sporting events dominate the sports landscape from a popularity perspective I try to mix in some women’s sports whenever I can. This isn’t just an idle gesture towards gender equality, I love watching women’s sports. When I went to the Olympics last year, all the events I saw except for a single day at the Men’s Ice Hockey rink were women’s events. I care at least as much (probably more) about the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team as I do about the men’s team. So, as much as I can, I try to track at least the higher profile women’s sports — college basketball and international soccer — and put them into my sports forecasts.

The problem is — that I don’t know exactly how to list them. When I list a men’s college basketball game or a men’s international soccer game, I don’t list the gender, I just write:

  • College Basketball – Princeton at Rutgers, 7 p.m. ET on ESPN7.

So, when I feature a women’s college basketball game, what should I do? It doesn’t feel quite right to write “Women’s college basketball” because then I’m making male the default gender and women an aberration. It’s true, that in mainstream coverage of college basketball, this is actually the truth about the position of the two genders. For evidence, you needn’t go farther than Sports Illustrated’s front page which lists men’s college basketball as NCAAB (NCAA Basketball) and women’s college basketball as NCAAW (NCAA Women?!). ESPN’s front page at least uses NCAAM and NCAAW as its two abbreviations but hides the women’s coverage in a “see more” style drop-down.


To date, I’ve experimented with simply leaving the gender off the page and only mentioning it in the podcast itself. Who cares if it’s men or women playing? It’s college basketball. If you like college basketball, you should watch it regardless of gender. I’m not so sure about that though — it seems almost willfully confusing, which goes against this site’s mission of making sports more accessible and easily understood. So, from now on, I’ll try to list the gender for all sporting events where the gender is not clear from the league’s name. College basketball and international soccer will get their gender pronouns whenever I write about them. Professional leagues like the NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB, MLS, EPL, and so on, will not get genders because only men (with a few notable exceptions) play in those leagues.

It’s a tiny little thing but every little bit helps. Thanks for reading and please call me out when I slip into defaulting to male in my writing about sports!

Celebrating Women in the NBA

Two stories popped up recently about women in the NBA that are worth knowing about. The women in the spotlight are Becky Hammon and Violet Palmer. Both were successful point guards during their playing days and both have become pioneers for women in men’s professional basketball.


Violet Palmer

Violet Palmer, trailblazing NBA ref

The first story was mercifully underplayed because it’s really no big deal. Violet Palmer, who became the first female NBA ref in 1997, married her long-time partner, Tanya Stine. Palmer said in an interview that although she came out as gay to her fellow refs in 2007, this is her “big formal coming out.” Palmer has been a trailblazer for women in an arena inexplicably dominated by men. ESPNW covered this exhaustively in 2011 and unfortunately not much has changed since Jane McManus wrote this:

No women call NFL, Major League Baseball or NHL games. The NBA has one female official, Violet Palmer. The elite levels of professional and Olympic soccer are opening their doors to women, with the majority of the opportunities coming in the women’s game.

Being a ref is a tough job for anyone. A common cliché about refs, which I think is pretty true, is that the best refs are the least noticed ones. This is because fans usually only remark on a ref when they feel he or she has made a bad call. Violet Palmer has done it for seventeen years and has been thoroughly unremarkable for all the best reasons. Women, gay people, and all lovers of equality should be proud of her.

Becky Hammon

Becky Hammon
Becky Hammon, first female NBA Assistant Coach

Becky Hammon has had an interesting career. Despite having been a star at her college, Colorado State University, she was not drafted by any WNBA team. Instead, she was signed as a free-agent by the New York Liberty where she became a solid player. That was 1999. Since then, she’s played professional basketball in one league or another for the past 15 years. She became mildly notorious in 2008 when, frustrated by not being invited to join the U.S. Olympic program, she became a naturalized Russian citizen and joined their team. This is slightly less crazy than it might seem at first. Like in some other women’s sports, while the most competitive league in the world may be in the United States, the salaries are significantly higher elsewhere. Many women who play in the United States also play professionally elsewhere for part of the year. Russia was a common destination for many top female players during the late 2000s. If you’re curious about the lifestyle, I dug up a great article from a few years back by Jim Caple that profiles a few top American players in Russia. For the past seven years she’s played point guard for the San Antonio Silver Stars.

Yesterday news broke that she was retiring from the WNBA to become Assistant Coach for the San Antonio Spurs, the men’s professional basketball team in San Antonio and reigning NBA Champions. Any major hire that the Spurs make would make news but this made big news because Hammon will be the first female Assistant Coach in NBA history. Hammon is already familiar with the Spurs and they are familiar with her. While rehabbing a major knee injury last year, she spent a lot of time at Spurs practices with the blessing and mentorship of long-time Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. According to Andrew Keh in this New York Times article, Hammon called that time an “internship.” She must have impressed because Popovich not only hired her but covered her with praise (effusive praise for the normally taciturn Popovich,) saying that he is “confident her basketball I.Q., work ethic and interpersonal skills will be a great benefit to the Spurs.” 

The best part of this is that just because the Spurs did this, the rest of the league is waking up this morning not only respecting Hammon’s hiring but frankly scared of it. The Spurs have done such a wonderful job over the past twenty years and have developed such a reputation for finding talent where other teams miss it that I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the WNBA ranks were thoroughly scoured for other coaching talent in the next year. That’s a good thing.

Is Tennis Sexist? Andy Murray at Wimbledon

Dear Sports Fan,

Is tennis sexist? After Andy Murray won at Wimbledon last week I heard a bunch of stuff about gender politics. What gives?


The Championships - Wimbledon 2013: Day Thirteen
No one claims Andy Murray is sexist, but what about the sport he plays?

—- —- —

Dear Amy,

I don’t know if tennis is inherently sexist. There are a couple things about the sport and its culture and history that are controversially gendered if not out and out sexist. Two things happened last week that brought these feelings to the surface.

Last Sunday Andy Murray won the Men’s Finals at Wimbledon. Wimbledon is one of the four big tennis tournaments of the year and the only one that takes place in England. It drips with history and nationalism. The last time a British man had won Wimbledon was 1936 and before last week the British people were desperate for a local champion. Way back in 2006 ESPN ran an article about this entitled “Decline of the British Empire” in which it detailed the continued failure of the best British men’s tennis player at the time, Tim Henman:

“WIMBLEDON, England — The autopsy was predictably grim. For the 13th consecutive year, Tim Henman — led by the dour and disheartened British scribes — discussed his failure at the All England Club.”

The same year, the ESPN scribe Greg Garber identified a 19 year old Andy Murray as being the future hope of the British people. Seven years later, he finally won. As you might expect, the reaction of the British fans was enormous. re-posted the almost messianic image on the front cover of the English newspaper The Times. After 77 years a Brit had won Wimbledon!! But wait, hold on a second, said a few small voices, hadn’t some British women won Wimbledon in the intervening years between 1936 and 2013? One of those voices, that of the feminist blogger and media personality Chloe Angyal, was in tweet form, retweeted almost 20,000 times:

Murray is indeed the first Brit to win Wimbledon in 77 years unless you think women are people.

The reverberations of this statement made it into the mainstream press even in England where The Guardian ran an article about the controversy and pointed out that not one but four British women have won Wimbledon since the last British man before Murray won the tournament.

Meanwhile, also on Twitter, another gendered conflict was brewing. A fan (or theoretically a troll) tweeted Andy Murray to say that he thought Serena Williams, the great women’s tennis champion, could beat Murray on grass. Murray went with it and tweeted back that he thought so to and that maybe someday they would play. For those readers who are tennis fans or over the age of 50 this probably brings back memories of Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs’ Battle of the Sexes in 1973. Riggs was a former top men’s professional tennis player. At the age of 55 he became one of the sport’s great villains by claiming that women’s tennis was inferior to men’s and that he could, even at his age, beat top female players. His challenge was taken up first by Margaret Court, a great women’s player, and then after he beat her, by Billie Jean King. King was another great women’s player but not as great as Margaret Court, who won 24 major tournaments in her career, which remains a record. King was and is much more high profile off the court as an advocate for the game of tennis and for sexual equality. King beat Riggs soundly in front of a television audience of over 50 million.

The proposed match between Murray and Williams has none of the chauvinistic feel of the Riggs v. King spectacle. Both players are close to the top of their abilities and, though this would likely make it less of a close contest (Serena herself said she doubted she’d “win a point,”) it also significantly lowers the stakes when it comes to humiliation. Both players have responded to the idea as a fun exhibition for the sport of tennis and my guess is that if the match happens it will be all about making creative points on the court, not political points.

1973 was a breakthrough year for women’s tennis in another way — it was the year that the U.S. Open, the first major tennis tournament to do so, equalized the prize money between men and women. It took a long time for the other three major tournaments to follow suit. The Australian Open equalized in 2000 and the final two, the French Open and Wimbledon, didn’t until 2007. These moves have not been without criticism from players who point out that men and women tennis players are getting paid for different amounts of work. What’s that you say? That’s right, men continue to play best three out of five sets in major tournaments while the women play best two out of three. This may not sound like a big deal but it means that women’s finals at Wimbledon have averaged around 90 minutes in the past 30 or so years, while the men’s finals have averaged 150 minutes.[1] Many protest that the message this sends is that women are less able to hold up against the rigors of a long match, and tennis will remain at least somewhat sexist as long as this is true.[2] As the UK Telegraph concludes in their article about this conundrum, “equal pay can ultimately be justified only be equal play.”

Thanks for your question,
Ezra Fischer

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Possibly ironically, I got this stat from a blog post that used it to argue in favor of giving male tennis players more money for winning than female tennis players.
  2. Any readers who think that women actually couldn’t stand the rigors of a long match, please read Brian Phillips’ excellent Grantland piece about the Iditarod which features Aliy Zirkle, a woman who places a close second in the 1,000 mile week-long pain-fest of a dogsled race.