Specialization and the Decathlon

EDUCATOR'S VERSION

This lesson printed from:
http://www.econedlink.org/e963

Posted August 9, 2011

Standards: 5, 6

Grades: 9-12

Author: Ed Scahill

Posted: August 9, 2011

DESCRIPTION

This lesson uses results from the 2008 Summer Olympic Games to explain that athletes specialize in sports and events for which they are most skilled for the same reasons that individuals and nations specialize in the production of goods and services for which they have an absolute or a comparative advantage.

KEY CONCEPTS

Absolute Advantage, Comparative Advantage, Opportunity Cost, Productivity, Specialization

STUDENTS WILL

  • Explain why most world records in sporting events are held by athletes who specialize in these events rather than by those who compete in multiple events or multiple sports.   
  • Explain why the motivation to specialize in athletic events or athletic activities is similar to the motivation for individuals to specialize in the production of certain goods and services.
  • Explain why the motivation to specialize in athletic events or athletic activities is similar to the motivation for nations to specialize in the production of certain goods and services.

INTRODUCTION

Michael Phelps won a record eight gold medals in swimming events during the 2008 Summer Olympic Games.  Sprinter Usain Bolt won three gold medals in the same Olympic Games.  Ask students to consider the following questions:

1. Why did Bruce Jenner, winner of a gold medal in the 1976 Summer Olympic Games, claim that Bryan Clay, the gold medal winner in the decathlon, proved that he was the world's greatest athlete for his performance in the 2008 Summer Olympic Games?

2. Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt are both great athletes.  Why did they concentrate on performing in certain athletic events (Phelps in swimming, Bolt in track and field races) rather than in a wider range of events?

3. Why do individuals specialize in producing a narrow range of goods and services, and then trade some of income they earn for goods and services that other individuals produce?

4. Why do nations specialize in the production of certain goods and services and then trade some of what they produce for goods and services produced in other nations?

RESOURCES


PROCESS

1. Tell students that Jim Thorpe earned gold medals at tholympicse 1912 Summer Olympic Games in both the decathlon and the pentathlon.  The decathlon is an athletic competition consisting of ten track and field events.   The pentathlon (no longer an Olympic event) is an athletic competition that consists of five track and field events.  The 1912 Olympics were held in Stockholm, Sweden. When Sweden's King Gustav V congratulated Thorpe on his achievements, he reportedly said, "You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world," to which Thorpe replied, "Thanks, King."  Today, many people believe that the winner of the Olympic gold medal in the decathlon is also entitled to be told, "You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world  (at least, for four years)."

2. Distribute a copy of Activty 1 ("Bryan Clay:  The World's Greatest Athlete?") to each student.  Tell students to read Activity 1 and ask them to respond, verbally or in writing, to the following statement:

“Bryan Clay should not be considered the greatest athlete in the world based on his performance in the 2008 Summer Olympic Games.  Although he won the gold medal in the decathlon, his performances in the ten individual events fell well short of the world record in all of these events.”

[Students will offer different opinions.  Those who believe Bryan Clay demonstrated that he was the greatest athlete in the 2008 Summer Olympic Games will agree with Bruce Jenner that "The basis of athletics is the ability to run, jump and throw.  The decathlon tests that."  Other students may argue that, despite his overall ability, Clay did not demonstrate superiority in any one event.  Both points of view are opinions, which cannot be proven right or wrong.]

3. Review the definition of specialization

A situation in which people produce a narrower range of goods and services than they consume. Specialization increases productivity; it also requires trade and increases interdependence.

This definition is used to explain why individuals and nations specialize in the production of certain goods and services.  With the income they earn they can buy other goods and services from individuals and nations who specialize in producing them.  Ask students why people and nations choose to specialize in production rather than be self-sufficient; self-sufficiency means that people produce all of the goods and services they consume so that there is no reason to trade with other people. 

[Specialization and trade allow individuals and nations to consume more goods and services than if these individuals and nations were self-sufficient.  Specialization enables individuals and nations to make an efficient use of their scarce resources.]

4. Most Olympic athletes - such as Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt - specialize in individual athletic events.  Ask students to use the definition above to explain how specialization in production is different from specialization in athletic competitions. 

[Athletes do not produce goods and services and do not trade their services for other goods and services.  However, specialization does increase productivity.  The definition of productivity is:  the amount of output (goods and services) produced per unit of input (productive resources) used.  In athletic events, productivity can be measured by performance in athletic events.   By specializing in individual sports for which they have exceptional athletic ability  - Phelps in swimming, Bolt in 100 meter and 200 races - each was able to earn multiple Olympic gold medals and world records in those events.]

5. Review the definition of absolute advantage:

The ability to produce more units of a good or service than some other producers using the same amount of resources.

Absolute advantage is used in reference to production of goods and services by individuals and nations.  Individuals and nations are able to consume more goods and services by specializing in the production of goods and services for which they have an absolute advantage.  They can then trade some of the goods and services they produce for goods and services other individuals and nations produce.  Ask students to apply the concept of absolute advantage to swimming and track and field events by completing the following sentence:  "An athlete has an absolute advantage when he or she can_______________________ .

["run faster in the same event than any other athlete" or " swim faster in the same event than any other athlete" or "jump higher/longer in the same event than any other athlete", etc.]

6. Review the definition of comparative advantage

The ability to produce a good or service at a lower opportunity cost than some other producer. This is the economic basis for specialization and trade.

Opportunity cost is the second-best alternative (or the value of that alternative) that must be given up when scarce resources are used for one purpose instead of another.  Comparative advantage is used to explain why individuals and nations benefit from specialization in production and trade even when one of the individuals or nations has an absolute advantage in the production of two goods or services.  Examples of comparative advantage typically assume that two individuals or two nations can produce certain amounts of the same two goods in the same period of time.  For example, the table below lists the amounts of wheat and computers that producers in Swizzleland and Astroland can produce in one day.
 

 

Bushels of Wheat

Number of Computers

Swizzleland

50

100

Astroland

10

50


 

Ask students which nation has an absolute advantage in the production of wheat.  Ask students to explain their answers. 

[Swizzleland has an absolute advantage in the production wheat because it can produce more bushels of wheat using the same resources - producing in the same amount of time - than Astroland can produce.] 

Ask students which nation has an absolute advantage in the production of computers.  Ask them to explain their answers.

[Swizzleland also has an absolute advantage in the production of wheat because it can produce more wheat using the same resources - producing in the same amount of time - than Astroland can produce.]

7. Ask students which nation has a comparative advantage in the production of wheat and computers.  Remind students that they must determine the opportunity cost of producing wheat and computers in each nation.  If Swizzleland (Astroland) produced one bushel of wheat, the opportunity cost would the number of computers it would not be able to produce.  This is the opportunity cost of producing wheat.  If Swizzleland (Astroland) produced one computer, the opportunity cost would be the number of bushels of wheat it would not be able to produce.  Display the table below on the board and either have students come to the board and fill in the answers, or have them draw the table on a piece of paper and complete the answers on their own.
 

 

Opportunity Cost of 1 bushel of Wheat

Opportunity Cost of 1 Computer

Swizzleland

 

 

Astroland

 

 


 

[The answers are recorded in the table below.  Even though Swizzleland has an absolute advantage in producing wheat and computers, it has a comparative advantage only in producing wheat because it has a lower opportunity cost than Astroland in the production of wheat.  Astroland has a comparative advantage in producing computers because it has a lower opportunity cost than Swizzleland in the production of computers.]
 

 

Opportunity Cost of 1 bushel of Wheat

Opportunity Cost of 1 Computer

Swizzleland

2 computers

½ bushel of wheat

Astroland

5 computers

1/5 bushel of wheat


 
8. Ask students:  If trade were to take place between Swizzleland and Astroland, which nation would benefit?  Which good should each nation produce? 

[Both nations would benefit from trade if each specialized in the production of the good for which it had a comparative advantage.  Swizzleland should specialize in the production of wheat and trade some of its wheat to Astroland.  Swizzleland should import computers from Astroland because Astroland can produce computers at a lower cost.  Astroland should specialize in the production of computers and trade some of its computers to Swizzleland.  Astroland will be better off importing wheat from Swizzleland because Swizzleland can produce wheat at a lower cost.]
 
9. Ask students to use the table in Activty 1 to examine Bryan Clay’s performance in the 10 events of the decathlon.  Is it possible to state that Usain Bolt had an absolute advantage in any of the events? 

[Yes. Usain Bolt ran a faster time in the 100 meter race.  Because Bolt did not compete in any of the other nine events we cannot determine which athlete had an absolute advantage in any of the other nine decathlon events.]
 
Ask students to use the table in Activty 1 to examine Bryan Clay’s performance in the 10 events of the decathlon.  Is it possible to state that Michael Phelps had an absolute advantage in any of the events? 

[No.  Michael Phelps specialized only in swimming events.  We can assume that Phelps had an absolute advantage compared to Bryan Clay in the swimming events Phelps won gold medals in.]
 
10. Both Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps won Olympic gold medals and set world records in athletic events for which they had exceptional skills.  In other words, they specialized in activities for which each had an absolute advantage relative to other athletes.  But athletes can seldom be shown to have a comparative advantage in an event or sport.  Ask students why this is so. 

[Because the motivation for athletes such as Phelps and Bolt to specialize is so great, they seldom are able to demonstrate their ability in multiple sports or events.]
 
11. Tell students that comparative advantage may be demonstrated in team sports.  If, for example, a baseball or softball player is the best pitcher and the best hitter on his or her team, the team is better off having this player specialize in the activity for which he or she has a comparative advantage.
 
Assume that Megan is the best hitter (she plays first base when she isn't pitching) and the best pitcher on her softball team.  Her opportunity cost as a hitter will be low if there are other very good hitters on her team.  If she specializes in pitching, her opportunity cost will be low if there are other good pitchers on her team.  Megan will have a comparative advantage in the activity that has a lower opportunity cost.  To determine her opportunity costs we would have to estimate how many wins her team would sacrifice by having another player take her place as a pitcher and how many games her team would sacrifice by having another player take her place as a hitter.
 

ASSESSMENT ACTIVITY

Multiple-choice Quiz

Have the students click on this Quiz or complete the following questions however you prefer.

1. The results from the 2008 Summer Olympic Games show that, compared to Bryan Clay:

a. Usain Bolt has an absolute advantage in the long jump.
b. Michael Phelps has a comparative advantage in the 100 meter race.
[c. Usain Bolt has an absolute advantage in the 100 meter race.]
d. Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt are better athletes than Bryan Clay.
 

2. Which of the following is one reason it is difficult to determine whether an athlete has a comparative advantage in an athletic activity relative to another athlete?

a. Performances in athletic activities usually can't be measured.
b. When athletes have an absolute advantage in two activities it is impossible for another athlete to have a comparative advantage in one of the activities.
c. Determining comparative advantage requires cooperation among athletes, but athletes are too competitive to cooperate.
[d. Athletes usually specialize in a single athletic activity; determining comparative advantage requires a comparison of the performances of two athletes in two different athletic activities.]     
 

3. Assume that two nations can produce two different goods.  If one of the nations has an absolute advantage in producing both of these goods:

a. this nation will also have a comparative advantage in producing both of the goods.
[b. this nation will have a comparative advantage in the good that it can produce at a lower opportunity cost.]
c. mutually beneficial trade between both nations is impossible.
d. this nation will have a lower opportunity cost of producing both goods.
 

4. Specialization in production:

[a. increases productivity.]
b. increases opportunity cost.
c. increases self-sufficiency.
d. increases comparative advantage.


5. The ability to produce more units of a good or service than some other producers using the same amount of resources is the definition of:

a. comparative advantage.
b. self-sufficiency.
[c. absolute advantage.]
d. productivity.

CONCLUSION

Students were asked to consider four questions at the beginning of the lesson.  We can now provide answers for these questions (if you prefer, have the students record their answers on the notepad below):
 

  1. Why did Bruce Jenner, winner of a gold medal in the 1976 Summer Olympic Games, claim that Bryan Clay, the gold medal winner in the decathlon, proved that he was the world's greatest athlete for his performance in the 2008 Summer Olympic Games?

    [Bruce Jenner believes individual sporting events, such as swimming, basketball and the 100-meter race are not standardized tests of a person’s athletic ability.  Jenner believes that the decathlon is a standardized test of a person's ability to run, jump and throw.]
     
  2. Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt are both great athletes.  Why did they concentrate on performing in certain athletic events (Phelps in swimming, Bolt in track and field races) rather than in a wider range of events?

    [Phelps and Bolt specialized in the events for which they had the most athletic skills - events for which they had an absolute advantage.  By specializing in these events, they were able to increase their productivity and win gold medals and set records in these events.]
     
  3. Why do individuals specialize in producing a narrow range of goods and services, and then trade some of the income they earn for goods and services that other individuals produce?

    [Specialization increases productivity; it also requires trade and increases interdependence.  When two individuals specialize in the production of goods or services for which each has an absolute advantage, they can trade for some of what they produce.  As a result, they will consume more of both goods than they could consume if they were self-sufficient.  Mutually beneficial trade is possible between two individuals even if one individual has an absolute advantage in two goods.  Each should specialize in the production of the good for which he/she can produce at a lower opportunity cost, and trade for some of the good for which the other individual can produce at a lower opportunity cost.   The ability of one individual to produce a good or service at a lower opportunity cost than some other producer is called comparative advantage.]
     
  4. Why do nations specialize in the production of certain goods and services and then trade some of what they produce for goods and services produced in other nations?

    [When two nations specialize in the production of goods or services for which they each have an absolute advantage, they can trade for some of what each other produce.  As a result, they will consume more of both goods than they could consume if they were self-sufficient.  Mutually beneficial trade is still possible if between two nations if one nation has an absolute advantage in two goods.  Each should specialize in the production of the good it can produce at a lower opportunity cost, and trade for some of the good for which the other nation has a lower opportunity cost.   The ability of one nation to produce a good or service at a lower opportunity cost than some other nation is called comparative advantage.]

EXTENSION ACTIVITY

Have the students complete this Worksheet.

1. In the 2008 Summer Olympic Games Usain Bolt represented Jamaica, a nation with a population of less than 3 million and a per capita income less than one-fifth the per capita income of the United States.  Athletes from the United States won a total of 110 medals (36 gold, 38 silver and 36 bronze).  Athletes from Jamaica won 11 medals (6 gold, 3 silver and 2 bronze), all of them in track and field.  In addition to Usain Bolt’s victories in the 100 meter and 200 meter races, Jamaican runners won gold medals in the women’s 100 meter and 200 meter races and the men’s and women’s 4 x 100 relay races, defeating runners from the United States in each race.  By specializing in the events for which they had an absolute advantage, Jamaican runners demonstrated that small nations can compete successfully with athletes from much larger countries in these events.               

Ask students to use the CIA Factbook to indentify the Jamaica's main exports, export partners, imports, and import partners.  Ask students to explain why Jamaica is able to export some of the goods it produces to larger, richer countries such as the United States.  

flags2. A bobsled team from Jamaica competed in the 1988 Winter Olympic Games held in Alberta, Canada.  Although the team did not come close to earning a medal in this event, the team garnered much media attention and sympathy from the general public as an underdog that exemplified the Olympic ideal.   The bobsled team even inspired a fictional film version of its story - Cool Runnings - that starred the late, great comic actor John Candy.   Athletes from the U.S. won 37 medals in the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver Canada, including a gold medal in the four-man bobsled.  Jamaica has never won a medal in the Winter Olympic Games.  Ask students why Jamaica does not have an absolute advantage in winter sports.    

3. Over 500 athletes from the Dominican Republic, a country with fewer than 10 million people, have played Major League Baseball (MLB).  Over 70 MLB players have come from just one city:  San Pedro de Macoris, a municipality of only about 200,000 people located in the Dominican Republic.  Few athletes from the Dominican Republic excel in other amateur and professional sports but many have competed at the highest level in MLB.  Ask students to explain how this demonstrates the benefits of specialization.


__________________________
1Pierre de Coubertin, considered the father of the modern Olympics, adopted a phrase from a speech given by Bishop Ethelbert Talbot at a service for Olympic champions during the 1908 Olympic Games. The Olympic Creed reads:

    "The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well."