(K. Brent Tomer),
ON AUGUST 14th Jessica Ennis-Hill of Britain narrowly failed to retain her Olympic gold medal in the heptathlon, losing to the up-and-coming Belgian athlete, Nafissatou Thiam. (Her effort had a wider social resonance, because she was battling to become only the third woman in Olympic history to retain a gold medal after giving birth.) The tight contest was also a reminder that the heptathlon, which officially combines seven events, actually encompasses eight: three runs, two jumps, two throws, and one gruelling test of arithmetic, as athletes and spectators try to figure out the scoring system.
Heptathletes win points according to obscure, nonlinear formulae, inspired by a Viennese mathematician, Karl Ulbrich. As well as being hard to understand, the scoring system appears to be skewed. Athletes find it consistently easier to rack up points in some disciplines than in others. In Rio, the average score in the 100-metre hurdles was 1,033 points. In the shotput it was only 763. This pattern is not confined to this year’s event. An academic study by Freya Gassmann of Saarland University…Continue reading