Did you know your browser is out of date? It is strongly recommended that you use an alternative browser.

Do it Later x

Keys to Olympic Success

24-Jul-2012

“Citius, Altius, Fortius” (faster, higher, stronger) is the Olympic motto, encapsulating the three performance factors for an Olympian. With the Olympic Games in London about to start, we examine some of the key performance factors based on demographics and economics, and come up with three of our own: richer, more populous, more specialised.

Two years ago, ahead of the FIFA World Cup in South Africa, we published an analysis of the key performance factors, mostly from an economic point of view, that determine success on the football pitch.

In this edition we return to the similar theme for this year’s Summer Olympics, which take place in London. Unlike football though, the Olympics involve a very different dynamic, with numerous disciplines and events within those disciplines, as well as a mix of team and individual sports. The beauty of the Olympics is that it gives a global audience to many so-called minority sports, many of them still amateur or poorly paid. Economics and demographics still play a major part in ensuring success though.

Launched in 1896 as the dream of Baron de Coubertin, the Olympic Games maintain their original amateur, Corinthian ethos in name only. These days the Games are big business, with cities spending vast amounts just to bid for the honour of hosting them, and then spending further vast amounts on the hosting of the Games. Few get a return on their investment. Atlanta only secured a return on its investment for the 1996 Games by turning its Olympic Stadium into a baseball stadium.

London hosts the Games after last doing so in 1948. As was the case then, austerity is the watchword for the hosts, but the similarity ends there. The UK was battling to rebuild after the Second World War and its people had little stomache for the Games, which were hosted on a shoe string. With the war still a fresh memory and the Iron Curtain descending across mainland Europe dividing capitalist West from communist East, many countries did not enter teams.

Today, the UK is also trying to cut spending after the bailout of the financial system following the crisis of 2008. Yet this has not deterred the hosts from putting on a good show. The government tripled its original budget to GBP9.3bn, but this could run to even higher figures as last minute expenditures come through. Experts are now predicting the biggest budget overrun since the 1996, when costs overran by 147%, according to Said Business School at Oxford University.

One suspects also that many countries (including the UK), will not skimp in ensuring that their athletes have the best chance of success.

So which then are the countries most likely to do well at the Games? We would think intuitively that this diversity suits countries with large populations and large GDPs. With plenty of resources at their disposal (in the form of numbers of athletes as well as coaching and facilities), these countries can achieve excellence over a number of disciplines.

The usual suspects, China and the US, come through in the betting, as can be seen in a comparison of odds for the upcoming games:

Figure 1: Odds on country to top medals table

  Bookie A Bookie B Bookie C Bookie D Bookie E Bookie F
USA 9/20 8/11 4/7 11/17 6/17 8/11
China 8/5 5/4 11/8 7/5 9/10 5/4
Russia 16 7 33 9 13/2 10
Australia   40     40 50
Any other nation       66    
Great Britain 66 40 66 66 33 40

Source: Oddschecker, based on online betting websites, as at 21 June 2012

They also comes through in the statistics for the most recent games. In the table below, we rank the top 20 countries in the Beijing Olympics in 2008, listing tallies by gold, silver and bronze medals won. We also note the GDP of each country and its population.

Figure 2: Top 20 countries by medal haul, Beijing 2008

Rank Country Gold Medals Silver Medals Bronze Medals Total Medals GDP US$ billion* Population millions of people~
1 China (CHN) 51 21 28 100 11 300 1 347
2 United States (USA) 36 38 36 110 15 094 313
3 Russia (RUS) 23 21 29 73 2 383 143
4 Great Britain (GBR) 19 13 15 47 2 261 62
5 Germany (GER) 16 10 15 41 3 100 82
6 Australia (AUS) 14 15 17 46 914 23
7 South Korea (KOR) 13 10 8 31 1 554 49
8 Japan (JPN) 9 6 10 25 4 440 127
9 Italy (ITA) 8 9 10 27 1 847 61
10 France (FRA) 7 16 18 41 2 218 65
11 Ukraine (UKR) 7 5 15 27 329 46
12 Netherlands (NED) 7 5 4 16 704 17
13 Kenya (KEN) 6 4 4 14 71 43
14 Jamaica (JAM) 6 3 2 11 25 3
15 Spain (ESP) 5 10 3 18 1 413 46
16 Belarus (BLR) 4 5 10 19 142 10
17 Romania (ROU) 4 1 3 8 267 19
18 Ethiopia (ETH) 4 1 2 7 95 84
19 Canada (CAN) 3 9 6 18 1 396 35
20 Poland (POL) 3 6 1 10 772 38

Sources: IOC, IMF, various

* 2011 by on a PPP basis

~Various sources

As the tables show, in many instances the combination of a large population and high GDP serves countries well over a range of disciplines. The large population ensures the pool of talent, while the high GDP means resources can be spent on maximising that talent. GDP per capita is less of a determinant: a small but wealthy country like Singapore is not expected to perform, while a large country with a high GDP (but a low GDP per capita like China), should do well because public resources can be directed at the most talented athletes.

However the tables also throw up some anomalies. Some countries with large populations and high GDP rankings are notably absent from the table. India (GDP US$4.5 trillion; population 1.2bn) does not feature, nor do Indonesia (GDP US$1.2 trillion; population 238m) and Brazil (GDP US$2.3bn; population 193m).

Equally some countries clearly punch above their weight, notably Jamaica, Kenya and Australia. While Australia is a wealthy country, it has a small population; Kenya has a fairly large population but a low GDP. Jamaica scores low in both GDP and population – a remarkable performance.

A cursory glance at the tables is interesting, but to really get to the heart of the matter of how well countries do according to the restrictions of population and GDP, we should calculate the ratio of medal tallies to the population or GDP of each country. We can do this by the tally of gold medals won (the typical measure of Olympic performance) or by total medals won.

In data compiled by researcher Simon Forsyth (http://simon.forsyth.net/olympicsGDP2008.html and http://simon.forsyth.net/olympics.html) we see some interesting names pop up. On a population basis, Jamaica was the best performer at the Beijing Olympics, with 2.15 gold medals per million people, followed by Bahrain with 1.4 medals per million.

On a total medals basis, the Bahamas came out tops, with 6.54 medals per million, followed by Jamaica with almost four medals per million.

On a GDP basis, Zimbabwe had the most number of gold medals per billion US dollars of GDP, followed by Jamaica and Mongolia. The rankings are the same for total medals.

The big nations ranked quite poorly on these measures: in gold medals per million of population, the US is 33rd, China 47th, Brazil 51st and India 55th; for total medals, the rankings are US 45th, Brazil 67th, China 68th and India 87th. South Africa came a very poor 83rd.

On a golds per GDP basis, China came 35th, the US 47th, Brazil 50th and India 55th. On a total medals per GDP basis, China came 56th, Brazil 69th, the US 70th and India 87th. Again, SA was a dismal 86th.

Figure 3: Gold medals per million population

Rank

Country

Gold

Silver

Bronze

Gold/Million

1

Jamaica

6

3

2

2.1582

2

Bahrain

1

0

0

1.4113

3

Estonia

1

1

0

0.7599

4

New Zealand

3

1

5

0.7289

5

Australia

14

15

17

0.6851

6

Mongolia

2

2

0

0.6776

7

Norway

3

5

2

0.6482

8

Georgia

3

0

3

0.6457

9

Slovakia

3

2

1

0.5507

10

Slovenia

1

2

2

0.4977

11

Latvia

1

1

1

0.4425

12

Netherlands

7

5

4

0.4224

13

Belarus

4

5

10

0.4113

14

Denmark

2

2

3

0.3658

15

Great Britain

19

13

15

0.3126

16

Panama

1

0

0

0.3084

17

Hungary

3

5

2

0.3013

18

Czech Republic

3

3

0

0.2933

19

Korea

13

10

8

0.2651

20

Switzerland

2

0

4

0.2647

21

Germany

16

10

15

0.1942

22

Finland

1

1

2

0.1909

23

Romania

4

1

3

0.1796

24

Cuba

2

11

11

0.1755

25

Russian Fed.

23

21

28

0.1627

26

Ukraine

7

5

15

0.1512

27

Italy

8

10

10

0.1376

28

Bulgaria

1

1

3

0.1366

29

Kenya

5

5

4

0.1355

30

Kazakhstan

2

4

7

0.1308

31

Spain

5

10

3

0.1236

32

Azerbaijan

1

2

4

0.1231

33

United States

36

38

36

0.1195

34

France

7

16

17

0.1099

35

Dominican Rep.

1

1

0

0.1068

36

Tunisia

1

0

0

0.0973

37

Belgium

1

1

0

0.0962

38

Portugal

1

1

0

0.0940

39

Canada

3

9

6

0.0898

40

DPR Korea

2

1

3

0.0858

41

Zimbabwe

1

3

0

0.0812

42

Poland

3

6

1

0.0779

43

Japan

9

6

10

0.0706

44

Cameroon

1

0

0

0.0554

45

Ethiopia

4

1

2

0.0523

46

Argentina

2

0

4

0.0496

47

China

51

21

28

0.0386

48

Uzbekistan

1

2

3

0.0360

49

Thailand

2

2

0

0.0307

50

Mexico

2

0

1

0.0184

51

Brazil

3

4

8

0.0158

52

Iran

1

0

1

0.0153

53

Turkey

1

4

3

0.0141

54

Indonesia

1

1

3

0.0043

55

India

1

0

2

0.0009

Figure 4: Gold medals by GDP

Rank

Country

Gold

Silver

Bronze

Gold/Billion GDP

1

Zimbabwe

1

3

0

452.2840

2

Jamaica

6

3

2

290.2758

3

Mongolia

2

2

0

237.5297

4

Georgia

3

0

3

146.3415

5

Kenya

5

5

4

84.9185

6

Ethiopia

4

1

2

64.3190

7

DPR Korea

2

1

3

50.0000

8

Bahrain

1

0

0

40.8163

9

Cuba

2

11

11

39.1313

10

Belarus

4

5

10

38.0228

11

Estonia

1

1

0

34.0716

12

Panama

1

0

0

28.9771

13

Slovakia

3

2

1

27.3723

14

New Zealand

3

1

5

26.8577

15

Cameroon

1

0

0

25.4001

16

Latvia

1

1

1

25.1699

17

Ukraine

7

5

15

21.8682

18

Australia

14

15

17

18.4017

19

Slovenia

1

2

2

18.2916

20

Romania

4

1

3

16.2272

21

Dominican Rep.

1

1

0

16.1838

22

Hungary

3

5

2

15.6822

23

Uzbekistan

1

2

3

15.5885

24

Azerbaijan

1

2

4

15.2882

25

Tunisia

1

0

0

12.9870

26

Norway

3

5

2

12.1261

27

Czech Republic

3

3

0

12.0434

28

Kazakhstan

2

4

7

11.9332

29

Bulgaria

1

1

3

11.5848

30

Russian Fed.

23

21

28

11.0153

31

Netherlands

7

5

4

10.9461

32

Korea

13

10

8

10.8243

33

Denmark

2

2

3

9.8184

34

Great Britain

19

13

15

8.8910

35

China

51

21

28

7.2951

36

Switzerland

2

0

4

6.6622

37

Germany

16

10

15

5.6980

38

Finland

1

1

2

5.3908

39

Poland

3

6

1

4.8317

40

Italy

8

10

10

4.4793

41

Portugal

1

1

0

4.3384

42

Thailand

2

2

0

3.8506

43

Argentina

2

0

4

3.8190

44

Spain

5

10

3

3.6982

45

France

7

16

17

3.4196

46

Belgium

1

1

0

2.6596

47

United States

36

38

36

2.6012

48

Canada

3

9

6

2.3697

49

Japan

9

6

10

2.0979

50

Brazil

3

4

8

1.6340

51

Mexico

2

0

1

1.4859

52

Iran

1

0

1

1.3280

53

Indonesia

1

1

3

1.1936

54

Turkey

1

4

3

1.1261

55

India

1

0

2

0.3346

What conclusions can we draw from these numbers? One is that in certain instances, the results on this basis can yield seemingly random results. A small or poor country could produce a single champion and feature brilliantly on these tables. That country may further boast a champion by some quirk of ancestry or migration – a person may emigrate from that country at a very young age, become proficient in a sport in a new country and then compete for his or her country of birth.

Or take the case of small but wealthy Bahrain, whose gold medal came in the men’s 1500m thanks to Rashid Ramzi. Ramzi was born Moroccan and afterwards said he still considered himself Moroccan,but had later emigrated to Bahrain. Morocco of course is a country with a fine middle distance tradition, going back to Said Aouita in the 1980s.

These “funnies” aside, there are some clear messages to be drawn from this for countries wishing to make a good show for themselves. One is specialisation: countries should concentrate their efforts on the disciplines or group of disciplines in which they have the culture and potential to perform, and can allocate scarce resources to that group of disciplines. Indeed, there may be more glory for a nation that dominates a handful of high profile events than one that garners medals across a range of lower profile sports (with fewer television viewers).

In the past, some countries – notably those in the Soviet bloc – achieved success through an over-allocation of resources towards sporting success, combined with an authoritarian government that forced young athletes into demanding training programmes and in many instances appeared to encourage the use of banned substances.

The collapse of communism in these countries has thankfully removed the social engineering element from sports policy, though many developed countries still allocate large resources towards promoting excellence: a good example is Australia, which has achieved remarkable success across a range of sports through state-funded sports academies.

Another is that culture and genetic attributes may play a big part. The continued performance of the smaller former Soviet republics in events like weightlifting in the years after the breakup of the Soviet Union (often despite straitened economic conditions in those countries) illustrates this well. These countries continue to deliver solid performances in the Olympic Games, long after the demise communist regimes that pushed sporting excellence at all expense.

A range of examples, from Lithuania in basketball (a small country that regularly features in the top group of nations in a truly world sport), to Malaysia in badminton and New Zealand in rugby, show how a tradition in a sport can overcome disadvantages.

Further examples can be found in athletics, especially in the cases of the Caribbean states in the sprint events, and East African countries like Kenya and Ethiopia in the middle and long distance events. Here, genetics may play a role. Sprinters of West African stock - and especially the West African diaspora in the US and the Caribbean - have a long tradition of Olympic overachievement, from Jesse Owens to Edwin Moses and to Usain Bolt in more recent years. It is surely only a matter of time before a West African country produces a champion in the 100 metre event.

Ethiopia and particularly Kenya have dominated the middle and long distances in a similar way. Considering that Kenya's star distance athletes are drawn mostly from a small section of the population, the Kalenjin ethnic group who make up less than 10% of the population, this outperformance is even more remarkable.

The secret of Kenyan success has long occupied the attention of sports scientists; it would appear that the combination of diet, living at high altitude over a large number of generations and other genetic factors has created just the right permutation of traits to produce the perfect middle distance athlete.

Genetic factors are nothing though if not combined with societal factors, such as a tradition of participation in a certain sport, and role that a competitive peer group and role models can play. Seeing one’s countrymen succeeding on the biggest stage can inspire talented youngsters to take up the sport and to train hard.

Working and training in a successful group can work wonders in promoting hard work, new ideas and motivation to succeed. This is as true in sports as it is in arts, literature, business, medicine and many other fields of human endeavour. Former champions and near champions return as coaches and mentors to inspire a new generation to succeed.

Here we must also acknowledge the role of the US university system in helping to foster excellence in sport and contributing to the glory of many smaller countries through sports scholarships. Many of the world’s best athletes and swimmers (and many other sports besides) have honed their talents at US universities, working in highly competitive training groups and under top coaches.

There can be no doubt that these factors have contributed to the success of Kenya and Jamaica in their respective disciplines. While Usain Bolt dominated the sprints in Beijing, the rest of the Jamaican sprint team were high quality athletes as well.

This holds some important lessons for South Africa if it is to improve on its dismal tallies (on any measure) in future Games. Lessons can also be learned from golf, a global sport in which South Africa can be rightly said to over achieve. That overachievement arose not by pure chance but through the example of the likes of Gary Player and Ernie Els, who not only inspired many young men to take up the sport but also have actively promoted and encouraged talented young players and in recent years has produced the likes of Charl Schwartzel and Louis Oosthuizen.

Transferring this model of success into a major Olympic sport is not easy, but the longer track events could be a good start. South Africa has many very talented long distance athletes, but their talents tend to be channeled into ultramarathons (a uniquely South African passion). If these can be channeled into events like the 5 000m and 10 000m or the marathon (where SA has had some Olympic success – who can forget Josiah Thugwane’s gold medal performance in Atlanta in 1996?), then we could well enjoy the fruits of larger medal tallies in years to come.