Every time the Olympics roll around I can’t help but be stunned by how quickly everyone turns into a macro-economist. As always, the focus is the raw medal count, which astounds me because it tells us surprisingly little about a nation’s real success.
Aggregates are really unimportant here; instead we should be looking a variety of relative measures. Take a look at Fig 1; China, Russia and the US have fewer medals per person than the other nations on the list, which is quite interesting. Inherently these nations should have more elite athletes simply because they have larger populations. (Consider that though only a limited number of athletes qualify for the Olympics; China, for example, trains tens of thousands of athletes at elite camps in hopes of having them qualify.) Assuming the percentage of potential elite athletes per person is fairly constant across geography, this suggests that elite athletes in smaller countries have a better chance at international success relative to their large-nation peers.
|Fig 1. Major Olympic Countries: populations and medal counts|
(A technical note: Some people like to look at medals per athlete, but this perspective has two problems. 1) It will overstate a nation’s success because of athletes competing in multiple events. This can be solved by treating each event as a “separate athlete”, thereby increasing the denominator and displaying a medal-attempt ratio. This unfortunately understates the value of a prolific athlete; sometimes you come across what I call the Michael Phelps effect. 7 Medals in one games is beyond extraordinary, and would overstate a nation’s expected performance. 2) The Olympic athletes all have to qualify, but there are limits to the number of competitors each team can send. China may well have 180 Olympic caliber swimmers for the 100m freestyle, but only a handful can go, and they may not all be the best (politics and luck during trials obviously play a part.) The notion of medals per athlete feels like it should be tidy, but leaves a lot to be explained and questioned.)
I feel I should take a moment to draw attention to one of the few media talking points worth thinking about. When it comes to athletics, how much push is too much? Six American high school football layers died of exhaustion last year. Nations like China are frequently targeted for their obsessive devotion to athletic superiority, and who can blame the critics when stories like this hit the news cycle. This really raises the question of what the medal is worth. Of course athletes will say it is a lifetime achievement and worth all the pain and suffering, but bear in mind that most of them have been in Olympic feeder programs for years; that sentiment has been bred into them. Competition is a religion to these people, and it’s all well and good to take the relativistic approach of “that’s what makes them happy”, but we’re still left with two questions. 1) In the long run, will they actually be happy? (Consider the impact of instant stardom on most youth celebrities. Consider also the expedited decay of their bodies. Now remember that many of these athletes have sacrificed academics and opportunities at work outside their competitive field; if they fail as trainers/coaches, what will they do with themselves? Olympic athletes generally aren’t millionaires, so there is the important question of sustenance.) 2) Is there no objective point where people can generally agree “that’s just too far, period”? Is this any different from the near-abusive indoctrination a devotion practices we tend to condemn in various religions?
I tried to figure out “what exactly a medal costs”, both socially for the average athlete, and fiscally for an athlete and country, but unfortunately I’ve had no luck getting my hands on national athletics expenditure data (I’ll keep trying.) In the meantime, take a look at some interesting research that was done using data from the 2008 Beijing Olympics, looking at the relative cost of medals for different nations.
This is far from the only way to look at Olympic victory. As usual, I just want to point out that a) there are a lot of ways to look at things b) some approaches are definitely better than others and c) the media’s approach is usually far from the best. Go watch the Olympics, cheer for your athletes, and think a bit about it all; you’ll get more out of it that way.