ESPN the Magazine published a provocative article recently about partying in the Olympic village, with much of the discussion focused on a purported high frequency of sexual encounters between Olympians. ESPN’s Olympic sex article was picked up by many news outlets and writers who focused on a statistic that 70-75% of Olympians had sexual encounters during the Olympics. Add to that the massive distribution of condoms (150,000 for these Olympics games) and these figure intimate both widespread participation and voracious frequency of such activity.
The proclivities of athletes don’t matter to our everyday lives. But as I read the article and struggled to wrap my mind around the statistics it occurred to me that attempting to qualify these claims is no different than the struggle that many businesses have to qualify their marketing, particularly in social media.
As it turns out the 70%-75% figure came from one Olympian, Hope Solo. In fact throughout the article, Solo was the most frequently quoted – probably due in no small part to the fact that she has a book coming out immediately following the Olympics. So, the 70-75% figure asserted by ESPN’s Olympic sex article is probably an exaggeration. Imagine being in a basketball arena and being asked to estimate how many people are drinking beer. That’s the same methodology that Hope Solo uses to gauge the behavior of 10,960 Olympians, with the caveat that it’s self-serving for her to give a higher estimate.
The 150,000 condoms are distributed by Durex which is a sponsor of the games (the number is in the official statistics). In Beijing, 100,000 condoms were distributed but it was discovered that 2/3 of those were left behind. So, even though the 150,000 condom number is humongous (it works out to 13.6 condoms per participant), the likelihood that athletes have increased their sexual activity 450% from one Olympics to the next given a change in one variable (location) is pretty low. Each condom is marked with the sport that the Olympian participates in as well, so there is a novelty element to the condoms that may imply that they’re not being used for their intended purposes.
So if we were to take Hope Solo and Durex at their word, 70% of Olympians would be using 150,000 condoms. Assuming that each activity involves two Olympians that would imply that of sexually active Olympians each averages 39 activities over the course of 16 days. Possible, yes. Plausible, no.
The issue with these fantastic statistics is that when you take a hard look at them you can come to the conclusion that they are implausible and not reliably quantified. If you really wanted to know how much Olympic sex was going on maybe you would use RFID tags, maybe you would apply some sort of sampling to it – but you wouldn’t rely on a self-promoter and a sponsor. If you had a business that relied on having an accurate quantification of Olympic sex (I don’t know what business that would be) you would go bankrupt. ESPN’s Olympic sex article wouldn’t be very helpful.
But how many businesses jump into Facebook enamored with idea of reaching its 552 million daily users only to find that reaching them is pretty darn tough (and if Limited Run’s experience is any indication, many of those fans could be fake)? Businesses do the same thing on Twitter (you have to be there, right), Pinterest (pinning is winning) and Google Plus (big SEO benefit).
The point I wanted to make was that sometimes we’re drawn to tantalizing facts and statistics – 70% of Olympians are hooking up or “Pinterest is retaining and engaging users as much as two to three times as efficiently as Twitter was at a similar time in history” and we don’t stop to consider whether the fact is accurate or relevant to our targeting or to our overall strategy. It’s important to start by evaluating what information we need and determining how to get it rather than reacting to information that is presented and finding that you’re having to make huge assumptions down the line.
If you really wanted to understand about how widespread sexual activity was, you would first have to realize that all you know is that between one and 10960 Olympians are having sex. And you may not even be able to trust that one because she has a book coming out in a few days.