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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 email@example.com.
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