MOST South Africans feel we are having a great Olympics so far, but it's my sad duty to inform you that we are underperforming. The good news is that we are underperforming dramatically less than previous years.
It must be said, the under/over-performance matrix is a controversial subject. The simple way to judge performance is to add up all the medals, but this is so obviously unfair. So for successive summer Olympics, economists have been trying to find an alternative way of distributing the laurels.
Yet, it turns out, it is much easier to see the faults in the simple method of adding up the medals than it is to find a fair alternative. And, allow me to hasten to add, this is much more than a parlour game. The Olympics is one of few ways we have of trying to gauge the effectiveness of a society in a measurable and comparable way. All countries like to do well at the games, and governments pump large amounts of money into sport partly because it's also a showcase, or it's seen as a showcase, of their own performance. It's possible this is a hangover from the Cold War period, in which sports performance at the Olympics was seen as a kind of proxy for the larger competition between economic systems.
In the past, economic analysts of the games have suggested that it is possible to distinguish four different kinds of advantages that countries might have: being richer, having a larger population, being the host nation, and being communist.
All of these are interesting in their own way. The last is particularly interesting because, even more than the West, the nations of the Soviet Union felt they had something to prove, and tended to put more time and resources, and perhaps also chemical additives, into their athletes. The Soviet advantage is happily declining now that the world is coalescing into a single economic system, but the statistical importance of that desire lingers.
What is not changing is the differential in wealth, not only between countries, but, as SA shows, within countries. White South Africans have been disproportionate winners of medals, and while we cherish the achievements, that obviously reflects on the economic situation in SA.
But how much of an advantage is total national wealth? Happily, now that we live in the digital era, there is always someone who has done the work for us and in this case it's a humble blogger, Hartley Brody. Brody collected gross domestic product (GDP) in constant purchasing power parity terms and compared it to the summer Olympic medals haul since 1980, as many have done before him.
The first problem Brody came across is that it is hard to detect a trend for countries that win only a few medals, because the comparatively small number of medals on offer, around 900, means the fluctuations are too large. This is also working on the basis that any correlation may not necessarily imply causation anyway.
Still, he says, some trends are discernible once the numbers get larger, since some countries are consistent overperformers, and some consistent underperformers. The first victim is the US, which despite almost always winning the most medals, is a consistent underperformer. Its GDP is now about 20% of the world's total, but in the past four summer games, it has won only about 13% of the medals. Interestingly, the US's performance declined significantly at the end of the Cold War. This suggests that not only is it an advantage to be a Soviet state, but it's also an advantage to be the main opponent of Sovietism.
Brody's data suggest that Soviet states do retain their advantage somewhat, and China is a particularly interesting case, since it has not only the advantage of being a communist country, but now has a growing GDP too. This has been reflected in its medal count, which has amazingly increased almost exactly in correlation with its GDP growth. Hence in 1980, China posted about 3% of the world's GDP, and it won 5% of the medals. In Athens four years ago, it won 12% of the medals and contributed 10% of the global GDP. If there is a good poster child for the correlation between GDP and medal count, China is it.
Brady points out two other interesting examples. Australia is now a fabulous Olympic outperformer, but in 1980, this was not the case. Australia's performance in the games has improved dramatically since 1988, despite its GDP remaining flat as a proportion of global GDP. It now wins 5% of the medals, and significantly, its best performance in terms of golds won, was at the Sydney Games. If SA wants to improve its medal count, Australia is the country to look to; the Aussies are obviously doing a lot of things very right, although this year they seem a bit slow off the mark.
Perhaps the biggest contraindicator of the notion that there is correlation between GDP and Olympic performance is Kenya, which has won about 1,5% of the medals despite an insignificant GDP in global terms. Kenya shows another trend ; its outperformance is because of one sport only, long-distance running. It highlights the tendency for some countries to develop pockets of expertise. The same is true of Caribbean sprinting, which is particularly on show this year.
So what about SA's performance? The Guardian newspaper is keeping a close tabs on the issue, and it has added a new dimension, team size. The newspaper has collected some statisticians to try and work out these correlations, and it appears there is a natural link between team size and medal count, presumably because teams self-select.
We are only about halfway through the games, but so far, SA is coming 41st if you adjust for population, 30th if you adjust for GDP, and 37th, if you adjust for team size. This is despite coming 28th in terms of total medals won, and 13th if you consider golds alone.
Just for comparison, if you adjust for GDP alone, Mongolia is currently winning, while if you adjust for population size, New Zealand currently takes gold.
So what does this all show? I suspect one of the reasons for the success of the Olympics is that it has such a wide array of disciplines that a good proportion of the participants do come away with something. There are 300 or so gold medals on offer, and around 200 countries participating.
Consequently, one obvious way to improve is to increase the team size by focusing not only on the big sports, where the competition is intense, but on smaller sports and particularly on sports where lots of medals are available. That means gymnastics and swimming in particular.
The second thing is that it is important to develop a real, intense understanding of the disciplines involved. That means better coaching and facilities. The third thing is that as a country, you really need to want to excel in this competition.
I can see why people get enthused about the amazing achievements and sacrifices involved and I hope we do better in future. But I really can't help feeling there are more pressing national requirements than this.
THERE is a related topic, suggested by the question, is US swimmer Michael Phelps the greatest Olympian ever? Phelps has without doubt achieved something truly extraordinary: 22 medals, 18 golds.
To win just one is incredible: to win 18 is mind-blowing. If he were a country, he would rank in the top 60 in modern Olympic history. His 18 golds would put him at No36, just ahead of Argentina, the New York Times points out.
This is all astounding, but how astounding? Phelps was the first swimmer to race in eight Olympic events at the 2004 Games in Athens. He apparently did not realise at the time that he was taking over the mantle of Michael Spitz, who won seven gold medals at the 1972 Olympics.
It is no accident. If you are a great swimmer, as Phelps obviously is, there are a range of distances and styles in which you can compete. By comparison, some 100m sprinters can compete successfully at 200m, but very few, it turns out, can be successful at 400m.
The same sort of thing applies to gymnastics. Phelps took over the record from gymnast Larisa Latynina, who for the past five decades has been the most decorated Olympian, winning 18 medals in her career. Other gymnasts too have won handfuls of medals.
The difference demonstrates there is a competition going on behind the scenes too, not between athletes so much as between sporting codes.
ON A totally different topic, just a quick note to flag a point that I think needs underlining about SABMiller, which was made recently at its annual general meeting by shareholder activist Theo Botha.
Once again Botha raised a question about the lack of black executives at the company. He pointed out that SAB was one of the oldest companies in SA, and that SA produced 35% of its pretax earnings. Africa is the company's best-performing continent, and it employs 33,000 people at 39 breweries.
Botha asked rather pointedly of Cyril Ramaphosa, who has been on the board since 1997, "how is it possible that a successful company that has been doing business in Africa for more than 110 years has not been able to find one black executive member?"
Apparently the company's answer is that it is ahead of the curve on this issue, but oddly by being ahead of the curve, it has become a prime location for poaching by other companies who have done less.
Also, SABMiller's global acquisition-driving expansion has complicated the effort, since additions of new regions need geographic balance in the executive, too.
Still, I think Botha has a point. Perhaps Ramaphosa might fancy a real job?
US performance declined at the end of the Cold War. This suggests that not only is it an advantage to be a Soviet state, but also to be the main opponent
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