Who is winning medals in London, and why?

Published: August 1, 2012
The writer teaches Strategy & Policy at the University 
of Cambridge

The writer teaches Strategy & Policy at the University of Cambridge

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.

Facebook Conversations

Reader Comments (26)

  • Usman786
    Aug 1, 2012 - 11:01PM

    VIts not only will of the people or avail of opportunities like stadium, kits but future benefits nvasiged value which turns people towards a career. I would not like my kids to spare extra time for sports as for me it may not be a good career or a proper/regular way to earn money though they earn in millions during their short playing lifeRecommend

  • C. Nandkishore
    Aug 1, 2012 - 11:11PM

    I agree with effective population concept. Excellence is a habit and if you peers have it you have it.


  • Kanwal
    Aug 1, 2012 - 11:14PM

    Its a great article. The findings are quite correct as we listen to Ye Shiwen saying she was picked up at school by her teacher and trained everyday for 5 hours from there on. Same goes on to be true for Nobel Prizes too. Israel’s astonishing number of Nobel Laureates is down to the sheer commitment of a very high number of individuals which provide a talent pool and increase the probability. We are largely producing boys with ambitions to earn money (because they need it to support families!) and girls basically have no ambitions at all than to get married and bear children in general. So that explains a lot.


  • Sajid
    Aug 1, 2012 - 11:18PM

    When I was a kid, we were often told “parhogay likho go banogay nawab; khailogay koodhogay hojaogay kharab”. It was painted on the walls of the school I went into at primary level as well.
    I think the reason we do not produce athletes of world level is a combination of several factors, cultural, economical, and social and others that I may miss. We as Pakistanis do not consider sport something of worth. We think it is just a way to pass the time. Even in our schools, sport is an ignored aspect of one’s development. It shouldn’t be. Our schools and universities should include sports as an important department. In fact, all universities should be mandated to include on their campus football fields, basketball, volleyball, tennis, and badminton courts, swimming pools, and running tracks. Not everyone is academically gifted, some are gifted athletically. Give them what they need to excel in what they are good at. Universities should also offer full scholarships to outstanding athletes, this way, those who have potential to excel in sports will have an incentive to work hard in something they are good at from a young age. In the long run, I plan to build a school and I will incorporate sports as an important part of my school, If I do not produce Nobel or Pulitzer prize winning intellectuals, I can hope to produce a gold winning Olympian.


  • Indian troll
    Aug 2, 2012 - 12:29AM

    Those sitting in India at the helm should also take notice. You have hit the nail by identifying the true causes behind Olympic Performance. That analysis holds true for other aspects of social and economic grOwth of a country as well. We in india need to throw away the current so called democratic system and build a sociology economic system using China as a model. China with it’s huge poPulation mirrors Indian society more closely. There is too much inequity, poverty and illiteracy in India for democracy to function as democacy. We have goons masquerading as leaders.Recommend

  • Falcon
    Aug 2, 2012 - 12:48AM

    I think as someone mentioned before. A significant problem with our cultures is that we are told from childhood that spending too much time in sports is not a good thing. The result is quite obvious. Its not just olympics but look at average life spans in the geography and you will realize that we certainly don’t live the best of lifestyles and we end up paying a cost for it in the long run. For us, the only objective is to grow, become a baraa sahab (or Sahiba) and sit in a big office and make a lot of money so that we can keep the wheel of family running. After that, the next best thing is to spend time in mosque. Rest of everything is unfortunately considered insignificant.


  • Mirza
    Aug 2, 2012 - 2:54AM

    A really great analysis that exposes the flaws in our poor country. Thanks ET and the author for thinking and talking about the real people. The haves are few and have all the resources. The have nots do not have much to go for, hence the poor results in most sports. While I was growing up, I never even saw a swimming pool from close or a good hockey field for that matter. I never had white/off white clothing to go and play a cricket match. This deprives most of the population from any active participation. The 1% elite fail miserably even if they get a chance to represent the country.


  • Muhammad
    Aug 2, 2012 - 5:01AM

    Using this model you cannot explain why UK is not winning as many medals as it should have. You cannot explain why a country with the best football league has only won football world cup once in the sixties (when the league was not the best in the world). You cannot explain that a country which has wimbledon actually has never won it (correct me if I am wrong). You cannot say UK’s effective population is small because it is not.
    Then how about Japan. They have money and more or less equal opportunities for people to develop their sporting skills but they do not win lots of medals.
    Therefor I think your analysis is still missing something vital.


  • Siddhartha Shastri
    Aug 2, 2012 - 8:20AM

    For winning medals at the Olympics availability of funds and knowhow to coach and provide modern training materials to aspiring athletes and to provide sustainance for the families while they train, is certainly important. However we must not overlook another major handicap that India and Pakistan face – the deep and widespread corruption prevailing in our societies. This culture of corruption makes people believe in taking short cuts wherever possible and avoid working hard for success. With such a mindset, how would the billion and a half people of the subcontinent think in terms of pushing themselves really hard in a sustained manner for a moment of glory once in four years?


  • jagjit sidhoo
    Aug 2, 2012 - 8:51AM

    A good article it may not have all the answers but it does have some. I would just like to add that Abhinav Bindra who won the gold in shooting at Beijing , has a father who is a multimillionaire who has made a private shooting range for his son. I am not trying to deride Bindra’s achievement he still had to beat the best in the world just trying to highlight the fact that not every child gets this opportunity.


  • Azeem
    Aug 2, 2012 - 8:57AM

    Its always a treat to read Dr. Kamal’s articles … very important subject with a novel analytical approach … This is one perspective of analysing the subject issue; the author does not claim that this is the only reason behind lost medals !!


  • Mirza
    Aug 2, 2012 - 9:50AM

    @Muhammad: You said “I think your analysis is still missing something vital.”
    Sir social sciences are not absolute laws of natural sciences. Both UK and Japan still win good amount of Olympic medals for the size of their population.
    Of course this is only a theory and would need more research and data. It is up to the others to continue to research this topic for the betterment and uplift of the standards of the countries like ours.


  • Arya
    Aug 2, 2012 - 9:52AM

    I agree with the author and Krishna and Haglund research but there are at least another one or two sides missing to give clear picture of the success/failure model. I find all the Indians and Pakistanis have commented alike. We as a society like disparity ( it is considered similar to diversity) and a life without aspiration ( ladder to the sky?). And then when it comes to an individual, he or she should be a “dream of his or her parents”. Just the other day I was playing with my neighbor’s 5 year old kid the so called cricket match. While playing, he hit his head to a steel frame, very hard. His cheeks turned pink and eyes moist. I too became worried, but luckily no cut or bleeding. Finally, after the game is over, the 5 year old quietly requested me not to report the “incident to his home”. Parental concern make the kid not to take unnecessary risk or adventure. I feel society ( effectively participating), parents and economy are the three sides of the triangle. African athletes have society and parents but no economy. India very much has economy to get at least 15 to 20 medals but no society and parents!


  • Aug 2, 2012 - 10:04AM

    A similar study was done right after the Chinese won so many gold in Beijing olympics.

    The answer was simple. Co-ordination.

    Schools recognized talent and they send these kids, with their parents permissions to sort of “concentration camps” where the kids are taken care of, trained and schooled by professionals.

    Even if the kid doesn’t make it to the Olympics or any top sporting position, he can enjoy a lifetime of state subsidies and a guaranteed job provided by the Govt.

    This is the exact model Soviet Union followed, which paid rich dividends.

    This is contrasted by the model followed by the US, which is independent, empowers schools and individuals. This method is preferred in Western countries because the child’s will is taken into account. In China the kids will accounts for nothing.

    This documentary is available on Discovery channel. Do Google and check for yourself.


  • daggardalla
    Aug 2, 2012 - 1:05PM

    US will win eventually in the end. Let athletic events start then see increase in Gold medal for US


  • choptocut
    Aug 2, 2012 - 1:18PM

    This model cannot explain the performance of France: A country that enjoys greater equality but it does not reflect in its Olympic performance.


  • Ali Ashfaq
    Aug 2, 2012 - 1:18PM

    A very nice article. I don’t agree with the last sentence of yours, unfortunately.


  • Aug 2, 2012 - 1:20PM

    very good research——– in the absence of trikle down formulla—–results will be more worst.
    we must defeat competition and promot— participation.


  • tennis fan
    Aug 2, 2012 - 1:35PM

    The last British tennis player to win singles Wimbledon was Fred Perry in 1936. Just this year, though, a British male player won the doubles title, though prior to that, the last British player to win a Wimbledon title in doubles was also Perry in 1936. Perry is also the last British player to win a grand slam.


  • Cynical
    Aug 2, 2012 - 10:15PM

    Interesting read. It certainly is thought provoking.


  • Shoaib Ul-Haq
    Aug 3, 2012 - 1:20AM

    A very interesting article indeed!


  • FKazmi
    Aug 3, 2012 - 10:53AM

    Well composed and very informative!


  • Rabea
    Aug 3, 2012 - 6:20PM

    A most interesting article. A small comment: Government schools in Pakistan have regular mandated extracurricular events including sports events which (low cost) private schools do not. They are also more likely to provide grounds and other sports facilities. At the middle and high school level. One of the reasons why parents prefer government schools at the middle and higher levels.


  • Fauzan Naeem
    Aug 3, 2012 - 9:51PM

    One Issue.

    Mindsets. We don’t consider sports as anything more than a hobby.
    Once we start to realize that Sports is one way of changing lives, of inspiring a nation we’ll prosper. You only need to things. 1) A mindset which sees sports as a profession, and 2) proper infrastructure.
    E.g. There is a lot of talent in Pakistan when it comes to football but kids are discouraged (many are) alongside a means to hone the talent.


  • Harris
    Aug 4, 2012 - 3:47AM

    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.”


  • Muhammad Ali Nekokara
    Aug 4, 2012 - 3:53AM

    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.


More in Opinion