TCS Daily


Olympic Lessons

By Herbert Inhaber - February 26, 2002 12:00 AM

Australia just won its first Olympic medal -- a gold at that -- in the unlikely sport of ice-skating. And the thrill of that victory has to do with a lot more than just sweat, effort, pluck, or fate.

First, the details. Steven Bradbury was in last place behind a field of medal contenders, including the favorite, Apollo Ohno of the U.S. Suddenly the leaders crashed into each other, not uncommon in skating - I have crashed into many unwary skaters myself. As they were untangling each other, Bradbury carefully skated around the limbs and got to the finish line first. Put a few more shrimp on the barbie!

Aside from national rejoicing down under, are there any other implications? Yes, there are. When the Winter Olympics began in the 1920s, it would have been inconceivable that Australians would have won a medal in any sport. Australia was a warm country, and that was that.

Aussies were about as athletic then as they are now. So what changed? In two words, energy costs. The prices of energy and electricity relative to family income have dropped over the decades in almost every nation. There may have been a few ice rinks in Australia two generations ago, but they were few and far between. Now there are many -- enough for Steven Bradbury and others to practice their lonely sport.

Indeed, the spread of cheap energy has allowed people to do things that would have been regarded as the privilege of only the wealthy not long ago.

Take travel. Not too long ago, the idea was you went to the seashore or the mountains. A few members of the elite traveled on the Queen Elizabeth, but they had little to do with the common people.

Now people jet over to Europe at a moment's notice. The more environmentally sensitive among us even go on "eco-tours" to Central America and elsewhere. I suspect that green groups are torn about this. On one hand, people get a better appreciation of nature. On the other, they are "wasting" energy by flying thousands of miles to gain that appreciation.

Much the same has happened in health. The fact that we live longer and better is in no small part due to cheaper energy. While there seems to be a relationship between a nation's energy use and the longevity of its citizens, correlation does not necessarily mean causation. But many of the new devices that save lives depend on cheap energy, as do the pharmaceutical factories manufacturing new pills.

Ever-cheaper energy is so pervasive that we almost take it for granted. In a previous column, I noted that the cost per unit of electricity has dropped by almost a factor of two since 1960. If we take account of rising family income over that time, it has dropped by perhaps a factor of three. The plunge has allowed us to do things that most of our parents and grandparents could only dream about.

Is there a cloud on the horizon? Yes, there is, and it comes from Japan. The Kyoto protocol, if it is ever implemented, would reverse the historical trend that has brought prosperity and new horizons to most nations. And all this based on a series of unproved computer programs. If we do plunge over the abyss, future generations will wonder what mental disturbance came over us.

But for time being, cheaper energy and electricity continues its spread. At the next Winter Olympics, perhaps a skater from the Congo or Liberia will ascend the podium. He will acknowledge his family and coach - and maybe the cheap energy that will have made it possible.
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