Olympic Victory and Luck

by Rob Tiller

Sally and I went to an early Valentine’s day party at David and Kelly Beatty’s last night.  It was our first visit to their North Raleigh place, which was not as far out as we expected, and sits on the edge of an old deep forest.  The house is spacious and beautiful in the transitional style, and Kelly has used color and form to make it lively and personal.  She also made a great lemon vodka martini and fantastic hors d’oeuvres.  It was good talking with Kelly and David, and meeting a few of their friends.  Because my car lease end date is in sight, I had some car questions for David, who proved, as always, a font of knowledge.  Kelly said little Reid was resistant to bedtime without parental attention, and so we headed out.

The winter olympics, which we enjoy, got started this week, so after the party we picked up some food from Royal India and came back to watch.   The commercials were ridiculously frequent and dumb.  But the competitions drew us in to some intense drama.  For years now, Sally has had a lively interest in speed-skater Apolo Anton Ohno.  Though I also find him interesting, she seems to have a different kind of absorption.  (I’ve noted this same absorption as to Brad Pitt.)  It so happened that Ohno was featured as the American hope in the short track speed skating 1500 meter semi-finals and finals.  The network showed a short documentary about him, emphasizing his extraordinary work ethic — four two-hour workouts per day.  He said, at one point, that at the end of every day he asks himself whether he’s done everything he can to be his best.  I was impressed.

In the 1500-meter race final, he quickly passed five or so competitors to claim the lead.  In the last three laps, though, the lead changed repeatedly, with passing maneuvers that looked impossible.  In the last lap, three South Koreans went to the front, and Ohno was in fourth place coming into the last turn.  Then one of the Koreans lost his edge and went over, taking one of his countrymen with him.  Ohno took second place, rather than nothing.

At the party I told David about The Drunkard’s Walk:  How Randomness Rules Our Lives, which I also posted about yesterday.  The Ohno race illustrates it nicely.  His years of effort put him in position to compete for another olympic medal.  But the South Koreans were stronger.  There was nothing he could do to stop them.  They were unfortunate in falling at the final turn, and he was fortunate.  That’s a typical success story:   hard work plus amazing luck.