Comparative Advantage-Part 2


Some athletes make a virtue of not specializing in one area. Among the greatest athletes of the late 20th century are two American Olympic champions: Dan O'Brien, winner of the decathlon at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and Jackie Joyner-Kersee, winner of the heptathlon at both the 1988 (Seoul) and 1992 (Barcelona) games. By tradition, the winner of the decathlon, a grueling series of ten events, is commonly referred to as the "world's greatest athlete." But Joyner-Kersee can challenge O'Brien for this title. She won three Olympic gold medals and dominated the women's long jump event, in addition to the heptathlon (a series of seven track and field events), during the 1980s and 1990s.

Although both O'Brien and Joyner-Kersee set world records in their respective multi-event specialties, their Olympic gold medal winning performances did not feature a world record in any individual event. The decathlon and heptathlon test the ability of athletes to excel different areas: "They both demand a perfectly balanced athleticism over two days. Combined events athletes must be brilliant runners, remarkable jumpers and quality throwers, all at the same time.Over-specialization seriously impairs performance."

Decathlon Results for Dan O'Brien
1996 Atlanta Olympics World Record
1. 100 meters 10.50 seconds 9.84 seconds
2. Long jump 24.83 feet 29.38 feet
3. Shotput 51.38 feet 75.85 feet
4. High jump 6.79 feet 8.04 feet
5. 400 meters 46.82 seconds 43.29 seconds
6. 110 meter hurdles 13.87 seconds 12.91 seconds
7. Discus 160 feet 243 feet
8. Pole vault 16.40 feet 20.15 feet
9. Javelin 219.5 feet 313.83 feet

Heptathlon Results for Jackie Joyner-Kersee
1988 Seoul Olympics World Record
1. 100 meters 12.69 seconds 12.21 seconds
2. Shotput 15.80 meters ** 22.63 meters
3. High jump 1.86 meters 2.09 meters
4. 200 meters 22.56 seconds 21.34 seconds
5. Long jump 7.27 meters 7.52 meters
6. Javelin 45.66 meters 80.00 meters
7. 800 meters 2:08.51 1:53.28
* World record performance for the heptathlon.
** one meter = 3.28 feet


Take the following interactive quiz to see if you know what events Dan O'Brien and Jackie Joyner-Kersee should specialize in.


Answer the following questions:

Why are Joyner-Kersee and O'Brien considered great athletes when their performances in individual events are typically well short of the world record performance?

Do you think O'Brien and Joyner-Kersee be able to earn a world record if they specialized in the event for which they were best suited?

Are O'Brien and Joyner-Kersee the best athletes of all time? Why or why not? What evidence can you find to support your position?


Go to the Shockwave website and play a few games against another student. Select some games from the Sports section and be sure to keep score.

Which of you had the absolute advantage in each game? If the two of you were going to represent your country in an 'Olympiad' of these online games, how would you use the principle of comparative advantage to determine who would play which game?

Now go to Part 3