OTTAWA — The Games of the XXX Olympiad open next week, followed shortly after by the quadrennial nervous breakdown in the Canadian media over the performance of our athletes. The process unfolds through several stages, never varying.
First, build up expectations of unprecedented medal haul, with particular focus on handful of stars. Second, discover mid-way through Games that stars are not living up to expectations. Third, initiate round of mass self-loathing over what this disaster says about national character. Fourth, decide what’s really lacking is “commitment,” i.e. government spending. Fifth, extract promises from politicians of more such “commitment” in future. Repeat every four years.
In the end, after all this drama, Canadian athletes will do well enough, and vastly better than in decades past, when we were content to win a half a dozen or so medals without disemboweling ourselves in humiliation. In recent Olympics (we are discussing the Summer Games here, and throughout), Canada has consistently finished among the Top 20 nations, out of nearly 200 participating. Indeed, we have performed just about as well as could be … predicted.
Have a look at the countries that top the all-time medal charts: the United States, the Soviet Union, Germany, Britain, France, Italy. They are disproportionately drawn from the countries with the largest populations and the highest per capita incomes. To be sure, you find the odd outlier, a Sweden here, a Hungary there, but generally speaking the bigger and richer the country, the greater its prospects of Olympic success. The reasons are obvious enough. Larger populations are more likely to produce the sort of one-in-a-million talent that wins medals. Richer nations have more leisure time to pursue athletics, and more money to spend on the elite athletes among them.
So close is the correlation that, with a few other variables such as climate, political system and host-country advantage thrown in, it is possible to quantify with some precision how many medals a country can expect to win. A team of economists at Goldman Sachs, for example, predicts Canada will take 19 medals this time out, one more than in 2008 and tying us for 12th place overall; using a slightly different methodology, PricewaterhouseCoopers gives us 15 total medals. Dan Johnson, an economics professor at Colorado College, has estimated a country can expect to win one gold medal for every additional US$4,750 in GDP per capita.
These aren’t the only factors, of course. Some countries are just “sportier” than others, with higher participation rates and higher levels of fitness relative to countries with similar incomes. And yes, there probably is something to the idea that a culture that emphasizes excellence generally will see that translated into success in athletics, as in other fields.
Still, the evidence is overwhelming that Olympic medals are primarily a function of population and wealth. And while both fitness and excellence are desirable national attributes in themselves, it is harder to make the case for spending a lot of money just to win more Olympic medals: not because it doesn’t work, but because, on the whole, it does. What exactly are we proving, other than that we are richer than other countries?
Stripped of the kitschy Greek-mythology trappings and long-lost amateur ethos, the Olympic Games amount to a forum for the biggest and richest nations to beat the pants off their smaller, poorer cousins — which they do with monotonous regularity. It’s not a particularly appealing sight. You know that spoiled rich kid in the movies who gets Daddy to buy him the trophy? Frankly, he looks a whole lot like us.
That the rich countries can stir themselves to regular fits of ecstasy over these entirely predictable results (“Hey, we killed Ghana”) is a tribute, I suppose, to nationalism’s enduring grip on the faculties. But we’re surely capable of something better. In an ideal world the athletes would simply compete with one another — as athletes, not flag-bearers. But if it must be a contest among nations, we can at least try to even the scales.
At a minimum, we might adjust the medal rankings to account for differences in population (the Scandinavian countries would crowd the top of the table in that case) or per capita GDP (China would win easily here) or better yet both. We might then have a measure of how well a country had done with the resources it had, not how much it had spent.
But it shouldn’t be hard to imagine going a step further. The most successful professional sports league on the planet, the NFL, maintains an extensive system of revenue-sharing among its many franchises, with their widely divergent economic bases. It does so in the realization that, however fiercely they may compete with one another on the field, they are all part of the same business: it is as much in the richer teams’ interest as the poorer to maintain a degree of parity between them. A league in which the New York Giants routinely demolished the Green Bay Packers, merely because they could spend so much more on talent, would be like, well, the NBA. Or the Olympics.
So why not a similar scheme for the Olympics — share resources among competing nations, with the aim of equalizing the support available to athletes of comparable ability, no matter which country they represented? It would certainly be more fair. It might even be more exciting.
» Andrew Coyne is a Postmedia News columnist.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition July 17, 2012