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.