Who is winning medals in London, and why?

Key is uniform distribution of opportunity, resources instead of market segmentation according to purchasing power.

Kamal A Munir August 01, 2012

As I write this, China is leading the medals’ table in London (they topped the table in Beijing too). Can we explain why? I do not claim to have the answer and a cursory look at research shows that no one else seems to either. But here are some thoughts where I build on some research published by Anirudh Krishna and Eric Haglund of Duke University and the Congressional Hunger Centre, respectively.

One might think that China’s success is because of its enormous population (which raises the probability of producing successful Olympians). However, the country with the next largest population, India, is nowhere in sight on the medals’ table. In fact, at the Beijing Olympics, India won one gold medal compared with China’s 51, and three medals overall compared with China’s 100. Between China and India, there were 48 countries, including Cuba (24 medals with a population of 11 million (1/100th of that of India). So population is not a good explanation for medal counts.

Perhaps, GDP is. Indeed, rich countries generally tend to do better on the medals’ table. It makes sense: more money can buy better sporting facilities, coaches, etc. When we combine population and GDP we get closer to the truth, but still are unable to explain the actual medal tally. Based on a combination of population and GDP, according to research done by Krishna and Haglund, China should have won 20 medals in the 2004 Olympics and India should have won 19. However, China (GDP of $8,000 as opposed to the US GDP of $50,000) actually won 63 and India got just one solitary medal. The Russian contingent should have won 15, whereas it actually won 92. In other words, even with GDP thrown in, some countries punch way above their weight, while others much below. Absolute investment in sporting facilities is also not the complete answer either, since Cuba wins just as many medals per one million people as Australia does.

The reason for this, according to Krishna and Haglund, lies in “effectively participating” populations. These are populations that actually participate in sports programmes that lead to the Olympics, or even simply, international level sport. In highly polarised countries (where GDP per capita basically means nothing, since the distribution of wealth generated is highly skewed) such as Pakistan and India, effective populations are very small. Sporting facilities and resources are hogged mostly by the elite. There are hardly any national level programmes that run on a regular basis and the plight of government schools is such that they are barely able to provide any facilities. Even in MC High School, Gojra, which has produced 75 international hockey players, it is the donations and the passion of one person that sustains the school’s excellence. The presence of Olympians (from similar backgrounds) in their midst allows this school’s poor students to dream. For its part, the government has done nothing.

It appears that countries such as China or Cuba, with a per capita GDP that is far lower than rich countries are able to do well because of the relative equal distribution of opportunities to excel across its school system (of course, they have also given much importance to sport because of the national pride associated with it). Perhaps, their success is also, at least partially, due to public health systems that ensure that their children do not suffer from malnutrition (like they do in India). A relatively equal society also ensures common dreams. Children in poor areas tend to have shockingly lower aspirations (this is something elite universities run into all the time — the poor smart kids are reluctant to even apply). Krishna and Haglund surveyed 40 villages in Karnataka and Rajasthan. They asked village youth what they aspired to be when they grew up. Their aspiration was mostly to become police constables, soldiers or schoolteachers, positions that they had seen their  ‘successful’ elders achieve. Indeed, in 20 villages of Karnataka, one doctor, three engineers and four lawyers in district courts represented the highest achievements in all of the past 10 years — from among 60,000 people!

As Krishna and Haglund stress, the concept of  “effective population” applies not just to the Olympics, but also to the Nobel Prize, mathematical and scientific excellence, etc. The key is uniform distribution of opportunity and resources instead of market segmentation according to purchasing power. Most Olympians are ‘discovered’ in their schools. A freely operating private school system, which differentiates solely on grades (obtained by cramming the students full of textbook knowledge) rather than following a more holistic pedagogical philosophy that feeds into national level objectives, might find it difficult to ever deliver on this front. Rich schools are loath to host teams from poor schools, share their facilities, or even to send their children to government-run programmes where a mix across classes might be present. Wider participation in national programmes or sharing of resources does not happen in segregated societies (and in Pakistan, a defacto policy of economic apartheid operates). Similarly, if the majority of a country’s population is denied access to proper nutrition and health care (and indeed, even the capacity to dream), it is effectively out of contention before it even started.

Winning medals at the Olympics, then, is not just about the individual athletes. It is about social and economic policies that they are a product of. Those sitting in Islamabad might want to take note of that.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 2nd, 2012.


Muhammad Ali Nekokara | 8 years ago | Reply

I think the cultural factor is also critical to explain the number of olympic medals. Women in conservative and eastern societies generally participate less in sports than the men. Since all games in olympics have a medal for men as well as women thus low participation of women also accounts for low performance in medals.

Harris | 8 years ago | Reply

While what he says about "effectively participating populations" may be true, the issue I have with China is that they are forcing their population to be "effectively participating".

They have created a system where athletes are almost 'genetically engineered' to compete in the olympics. Children with short torsos are assigned to gymnastics, tall people are encouraged to marry other tall people to produce basketball players (case in point: Yao Ming). Ye Shiwen, the swimming sensation at London 2012, was targeted by the government at age 7 because she had large hands and feet and could do 20 chin-ups. Chinese diver Qiu Bo has been going off to sports school since age 4.

GDP per capita, its distribution and economic policy has little to do with the number of medals that China has produced. Instead, it's the Chinese government's policy of creating an almost machine like system to gain medals so that it can showcase itself as a developed and advanced country.

The problem I have with China is that they've made the olympics a political game to satisfy the government's wants. Did you know that when athletes are injured they are thrown out of the training system and when they fail to perform the government puts a lot of pressure on the athletes and their families. 'Effectively participating'? More like Forced exploitation. Where is the spirit of sport? The spirit that's highly emphasized in the Olympics? The irony is that when Ye Shiwen was accused of doping by the world after winning a gold medal, the chinese media responded by saying that USA shouldn't turn this issue into a political one. Really, China?

Pakistanis usually tend to have a soft spot for the Chinese, especially in a China vs America issue. But one has to appreciate USA for effectively competing with China in these Olympics whilst maintaining the spirit of the games; even though its population is roughly 1/3rd of China's. What's even more interesting is that the American government does not interfere in the games at all. All American athletes receive zero funding from the state and instead rely solely on sponsors.

Quoting from an article: Xu Guoqi, a Hong Kong history professor and author of a book on China’s Olympic dream, emphasizes that the entire aim of the medal-focused system is rooted in “winning glory for the nation.” Author Xu says the system “takes away from individual joy in sports.”

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