Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Infographic Olympics - The methods the mainstream press used to explain the new generation of snowboarding tricks to your mum


For your average punter, understanding snowboarding tricks is a thankless task and now that the tricks are getting ever more complicated it’s becoming difficult for even seasoned snowboarders to understand what is happening. Sean White’s recently unveiled visual assault of swirls and flips, the Double McTwist 1260, is just the latest example. During the Olympics a few of news organisations had a stab at explaining these tricks by creating a variety of visuals. Today we take a look at these attempts and to top things off we give out some virtual medals...

The power of speech is one of mankind’s oldest communications methods, after grunting and hitting, but it doesn’t mean we’ve got all that good at it.

Wall Street Journal
WSJ gave a good example of the trouble most people have trying to explain these tricks. They asked a few spectators at the Olympic halfpipe event to describe White’s trick and this was the type of result…
All the high-flying daredevil tricks are somewhat lost on the broader sports watching public. Most people in the stands Wednesday had trouble describing the tricks they had come to see. John Murray, a translations engineer from Atlanta, Georgia, said he loves to watch Mr. White and has seen him compete five times, but still doesn't actually know what he's watching. "My guess is that a Double McTwist is when he gets to his apex, he's going to do like a 720 around and then also twisting and tumbling at the same time. Well, I can guess at it. There's a lot going on."
If the punters are having difficulties, then the snowboarding community don’t fare much better. In this video a bunch of people who are actually able to do the tricks, get themselves into a right muddle trying to explain exactly what the very-fashionable double cork is…

Clearly words alone just don’t cut it, so following the principle that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ a few organisations had a try at explaining the tricks by using graphics.
Unfortunately this picture is a thousand words from a monkey with a typewriter.

The Guardian
This is the home newspaper of one of the best infographics guys out there so I was expecting good things from the Guardian. They used a 2D approach, which unfortunately in this case, took something difficult to explain and made it unfathomable. There are more arrows flying around than there was at Custer’s last stand and I can’t for the life of me see how they show how he can flip around between each frame. Still at least it’s pretty and it comes with the handy hint that “A safe landing is crucial”

The Los Angele Times
The LA Times were easily the most prolific creator of Olympic snowboarding infographics. They also had some of the best named infographics around including:

But the two most interesting ones are...

“Shaun White: Halfpipe trickster” where White rapidly goes through a number of red and white costume changes as he rail slides down a twisty rollercoaster track. Just like the other versions of the graphic it is pretty much impossible to follow what is actually happening between the frames.  

And just for fun they take a look back at Lindsey Jacobellis’ crash in the 2006 Torino Olympics brilliantly tiled “Lindsey Jacobellis: Remembering her famous flub”. Is it me or does this one really not need this much of an explanation?  

Clearly the first two methods are struggling with the complexity of these new tricks so maybe the bigger budgets of a video production will explain things a bit better.

ESPN’s show ‘Sport Science’ dissects the Double Cork. In this video you get to experience what Shaun White’s tricks are like from the perspective of the most excitable guy who has ever existed. It’s a combination of video and computer graphic wizardry that starts off like a Gillette commercial and evolves into a full-blown Silver Surfer movie. Despite all the mental it does make for a surprising good explanation. 
You’ve got to be impressed with the lengths John Brenkus went to, to force some sort of wry sign off.
  • Weak premise: “Our motion tracking technology reveals that the shape of the trick is indeed a corkscrew.”
  • Weak link: “It also reveals one of nature’s most important shapes, the double-helix.”
  • Overstretching Conclusion: “Maybe this is why Shaun White was born to do tricks like the Double Cork. Their simply in his DNA.” Badda Boom!
New York Times
At the other extreme of presentation comes a very downbeat John Branch who explains the Olympic winning run and the Double McTwist 1260 in this video. I can’t embed it so click on the picture and you’ll go to the New York Times site where you can enjoy a man who sounds like is at his own funeral really sell the line - It was a thrilling feat of exuberance and risk”. 

So far we’ve seen graphics, we’ve seen videos and we’ve seen computer graphics. What happens when you cram all these things into one incredible information mash-up? 

Vancouver Sun
The Newspaper of the home of the Olympics clearly felt a lot of pressure to pick up their game for the event, however they apparently that ambition didn’t stretch to much of a budget and it looks like they gave the responsibility to the work-exchange student. This is their Interactive guide to Snowboarding…“Snowboard - Mountain Rebels”
“The winter version of surfing, snowboarders use a single board rather than skis and use the body and feet to direct it.”

Clearly developed and written by people that have never snowboarded, there are loads of really strange physics throughout and they constantly refer to us as skiers in the halfpipe section which does get on your nerves. It's hard to pick out a best bit because it’s all so bad. Perhaps its best feature is that it ends, but unfortunately there’s no rush towards that conclusion, I timed it and it runs for 4 minutes 20 which is longer than any of the actual events it’s trying to describe in the first place. This can’t be embedded into this blog but if you fancy wasting 4 minutes 20 of you life click here

Thankfully USA TODAY didn’t follow the lead of the Vancouver Sun and they managed to find a way of combining some of the best bits of all the other stuff we’ve seen so far. Their explanation of the Double Cork is actually really good. Click & Drag the slidey thing just under the photo and maybe in a few days you can conquer that trick too. 

The Medal Ceremony
Like any good Olympics we are going to hand out some bling.
  • Gold MedalUSA TODAY and their double cork interactive was a hands down winner.
  • Silver MedalESPN and their very exciting Sport Science video clinches silver because amongst all the craziness it does actually work.
  • Bronze Medal – To be honest by this point we are starting to scrape the barrel so we’ll give it to The Guardian’s graphic because it’s pretty. Expect to see compromising pictures of the bronze medal winner on TMZ soon
  • Notable for their complete failure to qualify for the gamesVancouver Sun and their shocking flash-based mess.

Special bonus section
Here are a few other interesting infographics that came out of the Olympics just in case you aren’t sick of them by this point.

The New York Times produced a surprisingly interesting and well designed guide to Olympic pictograms. Who new there was so much involved in that part of the Olympics? 

And they have a whole collection of Olympic inspired infographics here

Including another good video/computer graphic that explains the half-pipe. This would have been about the best way to explain the halfpipe event to your mum if she hadn’t already moved on to watching the ice dancing. 

Following their Infographic victory the USA TODAY’s similar take on the bobsled run is worth a look too. You really get to feel like an out of control Ukrainian

The Los Angeles Times have a collection of other Olympic infographics. As does The Guardian here.

And finally if you want something really leftfield, ESPN’s Sports Science also decided to take an way-to-detailed look at the science behind some poor guy getting kicked, really hard, in the nuts. Apparently your body gives out a “substance pee” when you get kicked there. 

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