I grew up in Saranac Lake, NY, a small and extremely cold town of about 5,000 people in the Adirondack Mountains just south of the Canadian border. We have three claims to fame. First, the cold—there are plenty of days in each year when a brutal combination of latitude and altitude make us the coldest town in America, and we get our name on TV on the morning shows. Second, the mountain air is so pure that people used to come stay in cabins to cure themselves of tuberculosis. Third, we are ten miles away from Lake Placid, NY, an even smaller town that has played host to two Olympic games in 1932 and 1980, the latter of which famously included the Miracle on Ice game.
This past weekend, a 29-year-old named Chris Mazdzer won a silver medal in luge singles, marking the first time an American had taken a medal in that discipline. Speaking as an Olympic fanatic who makes viewing spreadsheets and goes full curling fanatic and devises weird pools around the games, it was awesome. I was streaming it live Saturday morning when the announcer said he was from Saranac Lake, NY. I had no idea! It would have been easy for me to miss, since I live in North Carolina now, but it still gave me a little hometown thrill. Here's something even more remarkable: At the same time that Mazdzer was winning his silver, another Saranac Lake native—one I played basketball with—was competing in the men's biathlon 10km sprint. In the last few Olympics before this one, there was another Saranac Laker in ski jumping and nordic combined.
Insane, right? My town must produce awesome athletes, right? To repeat a sentiment I've heard over and over, something must be in the water.
On the other hand, I've never heard of anyone from my hometown (or anywhere remotely close) making the pros in basketball or football or baseball. Until a few years ago, my section of the state (again, remote mountain area) had never even won a state championship in basketball. And there other towns like mine, mostly in the northeast—I recently read a New York Times piece marveling at the number of Olympians from Norwich, VT, (the piece was excerpted from a book on the same town) which has also never produced an athlete of note in your more standard sports.
So, what gives? Let me introduce to you a concept that I am making up on the spot, but that is no way original: The Sports Accessibility Principle.
The Sports Accessibility Principle states that the more widespread a sport is, and the cheaper it is to play, the more likely it becomes that the best player in the world is the best possible player in the world.
Let's look at soccer, the biggest sport in the world. It's cheap and simple to play, which means it's accessible to poor people across the world. It's popular, which makes it more likely that a talented player will be noticed and absorbed into a system that allows him or her to develop as a pro. Now, is it possible the next potential Messi could go unnoticed, or perhaps never even touch a soccer ball? Of course! But due to the nature of soccer, it's less likely.
If we look at America, LeBron James is not just the best basketball player in the country, he's also darn close to the best possible player due to the same accessibility principles that apply to basketball in America as apply to soccer around the globe.
But the inverse is also true. The less accessible a sport becomes, the more likely it is that the best competitors in the world are not, in fact, the best potential competitors, but simply the beneficiaries of an extraordinary opportunity unavailable to large chunks of the world's population.
As far as I can tell, there are three main factors that make a sport inaccessible. The first is money, the second is geography, and the third is popularity. Money is self-explanatory, and you can see the effects in the demographic differences across the American professional ranks between a sport like basketball and sports like golf or lacrosse. It takes money to play lacrosse or golf, and so the professionals in those sports are inevitably richer—which, in America, means whiter—than other sports. Geography is also self-explanatory. If you're born in Texas, even if you're rich, it's less likely that you'll take up ice hockey. And popularity is the last limiter, and could be renamed "desirability." I grew up in a winter Olympic haven, and my parents were middle class, but it never occurred to me to take up something like bobsled. It's barely ever on TV, nobody thinks it's cool, and the athletes aren't famous. I probably could have, if I'd ever asked, and while I won't pretend for a second that I would have been any good at it, I use myself as an example of the limits of the sport itself. I grew up next door to a bobsled hotspot, and I still have no idea how somebody gets into a sport like that. But I do know you have to seek it out specifically, because it will not come to you.
So let's come back to luge. In order to be good at luge, you have to train at special facilities, which costs money—Mazdzer went to the National Sports Academy for high school in Lake Placid, a private school where I assume luge was his primary focus. Almost every obscure winter sport athlete from America either comes from reasonable wealth or found a benefactor. (Mazdzer's dad is a neurologist, while his teammate Tucker West's father is a wealthy entrepreneur who built him his own track at home.) It's limited by geography, because you're not going to take up luge in a hotter climate. And it's limited by popularity, because what kid would want to take up luge?
If you want to know why Germany is so good at the sport, read this piece—it's because they have a ton of luge clubs, invest more money than any other country, have more tracks, and start their athletes young. In other words, they manage on a national level to mitigate the limits of two factors, money and desirability. (If you've noticed that Norway seems to dominate cross country events, while the Netherlands is virtually unbeatable in long track speed skating and South Korea can't lose in short track, the answer is the same on an institutional level: They care more.)
Here's some trivia: How many luge tracks are there in America?
Answer: There are two. TWO TRACKS! One in Lake Placid, and one in Park City, UT. There are four continents on this planet, including South America and Africa, that have zero! For training and competitive purposes, there are only 16 in the whole world. Similarly, Lake Placid has one of just six ski jumping facilities in the country...of course some of our Olympians have come from my hometown. It's the same with the Norwich athletes profiled in the Times, almost all of whom compete in specific winter sports available only to more affluent cold-climate athletes.
If you're American and you want to get good at luge, you have to either be from somewhere near Lake Placid or Park City, or you have to go there. The regional, financial, and popularity obstacles are enormous, and though I don't have any official numbers on hand, my guess is that fewer than 200 people—an extremely conservative estimate—are actively pursuing competitive luge in America today. Meanwhile, you could probably find that many basketball players on five city blocks in New York City.
So when the announcer said that Mazdzer was from my hometown, I should not have been surprised—there was always a pretty decent chance.
At this point, I may sound like a complete Debbie Downer, so let me take the chance to say that Winter Olympians are all phenomenal athletes, and Mazdzer's win was both historic and inspiring. And yet...I can't shake the feeling that there's something almost fraudulent about the more obscure Winter Olympic sports. If you let me invent a complicated, skill-based winter sport, gave me a two-year head start to practice, and then held an Olympics, I'd probably be among the best in the world. And it feels like that's what's happening on a much broader scope in sports like luge. The athletes work hard, they're in great shape, and they have to perform under pressure, but nobody else plays these sports!
In Usain Bolt's heyday, I believe that you could search the planet for months and not find a single human being who could run faster over 100 meters. But if everyone had the same chance at luge? Odds are, there are dozens, perhaps hundreds, perhaps thousands of better lugers hiding in places where they'll never touch a sled. I hate to break out the p-word, since it's so badly overused, but so many winter Olympics sports are sports of privilege—rich people picking out obscure events they can excel at. The games are a wonderful spectacle, but look too closely, and the foundation of excellence starts to look pretty wobbly.