In the last three weeks, TV viewers all over the world, focused on the Olympics Medal Tally by countries.
Would United States reign supreme? Or would China finally take over? Judge them by gold medals or by total numbers of medals? Was there doping by Chinese athletes?
It is a pity that the media does not dig deeper into Olympic medal results, as sports experts know that Total Medals won by a country can be very misleading.
Medals won, depends on the size of the population, the country's wealth (Gross Domestic Product), numbers of medals available for each sport, how the country is defined geographically, whether the country is the host nation, governments' priority in resources for sports, and other intangible factors such as the "sporting culture" of the people (often to do with skills suited for war) and sheer individual brilliance.
For those who can understand elementary statistics, just read this article here which sets out a lovely mathematical model by Bernard and Busse, whose predictions have previously been within 2 or 3 medals for each country. http://www.nber.org/papers/w7998
All students should go to this web-page http://simon.forsyth.net/olympics.html which gives you Olympic rankings by all kinds of criteria: by medals per million population, medals per trillion dollars of GDP, Total Medals (gold + silver + bronze), "Weighted Total Medals" (where a gold medal is arbitrarily given a value of 4, a silver is given 2 and a bronze is given 1), and even the "Host Country" effect. You can have real fun with the numbers.
Put simply: "there is no level playing field in sports". So who might be the 'real Olympic champion countries' if you did try to level things out?
First of all, remember that Olympics are also about participation in a grand global event, not about winning medals. Second, athletes may not win medals, but can make fantastic improvements in their own performance. So let us first get out of the way two factors we can do nothing about.
The medal tally for a "country" depends which regions and people are considered part of the "country".
Three decades ago, the only real challenger to the United States was the Soviet Union, which understood that sports was a peaceful propaganda surrogate for war: defeat your enemy in sports; and psychologically, you are defeating them in war (hence the jingoistic flag raising).
The Soviet Union during the "Cold War" used to devote massive amounts of resources to sports, in the same way that China is doing today. But when the Soviet Union broke up into separate countries, its dominance was also broken, leaving only Russia in our minds. For fun, add up the total medals of countries who were once part of the Soviet Union.
Yugoslavia similarly. What about Britain which aggregates the medals for England, Scotland and Wales, normally bitter enemies in rugby and soccer?
What about the impact of immigration: how many medals would Britain or Canada have, without those won by the recent West Indian and African migrants?
How many medals for each sport?
We could also ask why are different sports given vastly different numbers of medals?
Why are so many medals awarded for swimming other water sports, when many countries are either land-locked, have no experience or culture of water sports, and many which are too poor to have Olympic sized swimming pools?
What about the many team sports (relays, soccer, basket ball etc) where only one medal is awarded per team?
Let us come to the fun statistics which I derived from the website above, a couple of days ago (some numbers may be different today).
Total Medals and Population
Of course, countries with higher population ought to win more medals.
China, with more than 1.4 billion people, ought to have more medals than Unites States, (even assuming that the numbers of athletes are in the same proportion which they are not).
The real champs by Total Medals per million of population are
1. Grenada (only 1 medal)
3. Trinidad and Tobago
4. Bahamas (only 1 medal)
5. New Zealand
17. Cuba .... and
50. United States
Jamaica, Trinidad, New Zealand and Australia are clearly doing extremely well.
China and United States are nowhere at the top (Russia does better).
Total Medals and Wealth (GDP)
We also know that if a country is wealthy and devotes abundant resources on their sports, in terms of facilities, coaching, competitions, etc., you can expect superior performance.
So ranking by "Total Medals per Trillion dollars of GDP":
13. New Zeeland
67. United States
Again, the names of Jamaica, Cuba, Kenya, Trinidad, and New Zealand crop up near the top.
Again, China and United States are way down, well below Russia even.
Population and Wealth Together
A very rough way of looking at both population and wealth together is to take the average of their ranks by "Medals per million population", and the rank by "Medals per trillion GDP". This is what you get:
7. New Zeeland
61. United States
Again, the great Olympic champion countries are Jamaica and Trinidad.
And there is New Zealand doing well with 7th place, and Australia in 19th place, both higher by a long way, than countries like United States (61) and China (70).
So why on earth has there been a media frenzy over China winning so many medals in the London Olympics? They are not high on the list by population or GDP.
BUT, given that China is now been devoting huge resources to sports, accelerated by the Beijing Olympics, given their rise as an economic super-power, given their massive population, then their total medals won MUST NATURALLY AND DRAMATICALLY INCREASE over the next two decades, and probably exceeding United States by the next Olympics in Rio.
The doping allegations? The Olympics data since 1946 on the records in the two swimming events won by the young Chinese athlete indicate that in one event she reduced the world record by just around a second (no big deal: in previous years other winners had reduced the time by as much as two seconds, with no allegation then of "doping").
In her other gold medal win, she broke the Olympic record but not the world record, apparently done similarly by young swimmers previously.
Without evidence to the contrary, the doping allegations against China must be seen "racist bad sports" by western countries which cannot cope with the rise of China as a sporting super power, just United States is at the moment, and Britain was in a bygone era.
Of course, a lovely PhD can be earned by clarifying why India also with a billion people and also a rising economic super-power does so pathetically at the Olympics.
Pacific countries, Australia and NZ?
An interesting question ought to be asked: why is it that Jamaica, Trinidad, Bahamas and Grenada are so successful in the Olympics, while the Pacific countries are not in the same league.
I suspect that part of the answer may be the very rich relationships in sports and movement of sports people between the Caribbean countries and the richer developed countries of United States, Canada and Great Britain.
The Pacific countries, in contrast, have not had the same relationships with Australia and NZ in the Olympic sports.
Just as they do not have the same enriching relationships in rugby Super 14, soccer or netball.
What a pity, for both the Pacific countries and Australia and NZ.
nProfessor Wadan Narsey is a an independent economist and writer and also a former professor of economics at the University of the South Pacific. These views are his and not of this newspaper.