Think Inc.
A forum for Hawaii's
business community to discuss
current events and issues

Sunday, September 5, 2004


The models for medals

It may seem strange that the giant accounting firm, PricewaterhouseCoopers, has developed a model based on macroeconomic and historical data to forecast the number of medals that countries may win at the Olympic games. Since they had predicted the United States to win only 70 medals, their model obviously needs quite a bit of tweaking. More impressive is another macroeconomic model by two American economists, Andrew Bernard of Dartmouth College and Meghan Busse of the University of California. They accurately predicted the United States would win 97 medals at the Sydney Olympics, and they forecast 93 medals for the 2004 Olympics. (The United States finished with 103.)

While we ooh and aah over the individual and team exploits we see on our television screens, these models take no account of the skill of individual athletes. They are based on the simple fact that in world sports, population size and level of economic development matter. A populous country has more young people to draw from, and a rich country draws deeper in its population and has better resources for training.

The models also look at other factors -- home country advantage and past performance in Olympic games. Australia did especially well in the Sydney Olympics, and in Athens, the Greeks won more than four times as many gold medals per person as did the United States. Past performance is a measure of the factors that are not quantifiable, such as the degree of "sports-mindedness" in a society and the extent to which sports efforts are focused on the Olympic games.

Because of its sheer size and economic resources, the United States is a sports superpower. Americans can rightly be proud of their athletes' performances. But despite the U.S. dominance in the total medal count, many other countries can also be very proud because their medal counts exceed normal expectations or they may be exceptionally competitive in one or two sports.

In the Asia-Pacific region, Australia and New Zealand are super performers. With only 7 percent of the U.S. population, Australia had about half as many medals. Australia's Bureau of Statistics had proudly been issuing a day-to-day count of gold medals per capita. This ranked the Bahamas first, Norway second, Australia third, Hungary fourth, Cuba fifth and New Zealand sixth. The United States placed 34th. Australia's consistent ability to punch above its weight in recent Olympics can be attributed to a national enthusiasm for sports backed up by money, including large government outlays for training, coaching and technology.

The Medical Journal of Australia is something of a party pooper, asking whether Australia's $4.8 million spent per gold medal might help the national health more if spent on doctors, nurses and hospitals.

China's rise of prominence in the Olympics is also a matter of great national pride. Because of its huge population, its per capita medal count is below average, considerably lower than the U.S. count. But China is still a developing country. As it continues to grow richer, it is an emerging Olympics superpower, destined to come into contention with the United States for total medal count. South Korea and Japan also have much to boast about, having both come in ahead of the United States on the gold medals per capita basis.

By all measures, India does least well in the Olympics, with only three individual medals in the modern Olympics and a few more in the past in field hockey. The PricewaterhouseCoopers model predicted India would win 10 medals this year, but they won one silver medal for shooting. On the list of medals per capita, India stands stolidly in last place, 1 per billion compared to one medal (two bronze, no gold) per 57 million for second-to-the-last Nigeria -- so far down as to be literally off the charts.

Indian sports writer, Rohit Brijnath, writes: "This makes little sense to the world ... we haven't figured it out either."

As he and other Indian writers observe, India's low per capita income and poor access to sports facilities and training are not full explanations, since some very poor, under-equipped and much smaller African and Caribbean countries have done well in the Olympics. A more likely explanation lies in the opposite of the Australian phenomenon: an educated society in India that is so focused on academic and vocational education that parents simply are not encouraging their children to excel in sports.

Even in India there is hope for the future. One Indian writer notes encouragingly that it took only four years between the second and third medal, whereas it had been decades between the first and second.

So no matter whether the national team is doing poorly or well, all people cheer their athletes and hope they will do better in the future. Even the smallest countries typically have at least one national hero, and everyone appreciates a stellar athletic performance, no matter the athlete's nationality. While more needs to be done to achieve equality of opportunity in sports, the Olympics have been remarkably successful in becoming a true venue for peaceful global competition.

Charles E. Morrison, president of the East-West Center, can be reached at 944-7103 or morrisoc@eastwestcenter.org.



Want your firm
to do well? Treat
workers right

Management theorists have been studying human motivation for decades. The hope was that managers could draw practical conclusions from this research to enable them to better motivate employees as a steppingstone to improved productivity, morale and satisfaction.

As a result of these efforts, most of today's progressive managers are familiar with such fundamental theories as Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs and Frederick Hertzberg's two factor theory of hygiene versus motivation, to name two of the more popular ones. While the existing theories vary in some ways, their underlying premise is the same: By treating people well, organizations, in turn, do well.

However, when a study by the Greensboro, N.C.-based Herman Group indicates that "30 percent to 40 percent of the working population is unhappy in their jobs to the extent they have 'checked out mentally and emotionally,'" we must step back and ask ourselves why. The simple explanation is that with everyone being asked to do more with less in the face of today's many work force reductions, our theories of human motivation need to be revisited and revised.

But the problem lies not with our theories.

No, the problem is more basic. It has to do with our deeply felt beliefs about why it is important to treat people well. It has to do with the reasons behind our efforts to treat people well in the first place; our motives for efforts at motivating.

While at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, I was fortunate to have had Douglas McGregor, the father of the theory "x" vs. theory "y" of human motivation, as a colleague. During one session Doug held periodically with younger faculty members, he talked of a double bind he felt in his own career.

To get the attention of the chief executive with whom he consulted he would cite the many research studies he and others had conducted linking efforts to treat people well with reduced turnover, increased morale, and -- under certain circumstances -- increased productivity.

In other words, he, and virtually everyone else like him, relied on hard logic to make his point: Treat your people well and your organization will do well.

"So what's the point?" you wonder.

The problem, as he admitted with considerable embarrassment and hesitancy, was that -- in his heart -- he believed that the real reason to treat people well was intrinsic. In other words, the reason why you should empower your people by treating them with respect and trust is because they are human beings. And that is how human beings deserve to be treated. For their intrinsic worth. Period.

As a result of doing so, and if you had faith -- an unwavering belief that you were doing the right thing -- more often than not the organization will be rewarded.

When the going gets tough, people who are unconditionally cared for in this way will put out the extra effort to care in return. Why will they do their best? Because it is their in their human nature to do so.

However, as long as our primary motivation for seeking new ways to motivate employees is to gain control of them the best we can hope for is that such efforts will capture their minds and bodies. In order to deal with the 30 percent to 40 percent of our work force that has checked out mentally and emotionally, we need to look for new ways to exhibit an intrinsic caring for one another.

Unless we can capture an employee's heart and soul we will lose the creativity and innovation we need to survive and grow in today's turbulent business environment.

Irwin Rubin is president of Temenos Inc., which specializes in executive leadership development. His column appears twice a month in the Star-Bulletin. Send questions and column suggestions to temenos@lava.net.

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