Olympics and Winning




I’m sure all of us have been keenly following the London 2012 Olympics. In light of the recent Olympics in London, much has been written and said about countries and their athletes.  China, currently leading the medals tally has been criticized for spending far too much money on its athletes than necessary. The very same article, among many other things,  also mentions the fact that:

“In comparison, the U.S. Olympic swim team, like the U.S. Olympic Committee, receives no government funding and relies on corporate sponsorships and private contributions.”

There has also been some discussion among us desis on Pakistan’s poor performance in the Olympics (losing 7-0 to Australia in Hockey, both our swimmers, Israr Husain and Anam Bandey, failing to qualify etc). The first and foremost reason generally given for sub-par performance is lack of government’s initiatives and/or incentives for the athletes. People also say that talent is there but athletes are not given opportunities. But if that is the case, what about US? And the communist-esque China?

So what really is the most probable cause for athletes and countries winning medals? This curiosity  further lead me to research and find out what would be a good reason for winning medals. Could it be the population? Higher populations leading to a higher possibility of finding someone talented? Or does the economy of a country play role?

Kamal A Munir wrote a great piece in Express Tribune on the issue. He explains that

“The key is uniform distribution of opportunity and resources instead of market segmentation according to purchasing power.”

He also tackles the population issue and explains that if that were the case, India, which is has the next highest population would be following China in medal counts in beijing Olympics but it got only one Gold medal compared to China’s 51 and India has three overall medals versus 100 of China.

This, to me, clearly rules out the possibility that it is population of a country which leads to winning of medals. Next we come to the economies of countries. The claim that countries with higher GDP and those countries which have better economies do well in Olympics is also not a completely satisfactory argument. Munir, in his piece, points out that:

“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.

So in essence, the theory that a country is rich or has the means and resources will do well in Olympics or sporting events, is also not satisfactory. He then concludes by saying that

“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.”

Indeed, the effectively participating population concept seems to be a reasonable explanation here. The reason why Pakistan seems to not do so well at an international level when it comes to sports is because of small effective/participating populations be from lack of resources, or opportunities and I have no doubt in my mind that Pakistan does not lack in the talent department, it is the “relative equal distribution of opportunities” that matters the most.

Top it off with the fact that we as a society and as a nation do not invest in our youth also. Athletes take years to train and we do not work systematically. We don’t want to pay taxes, but want good roads, a clean infrastructure, good schools and electricity, clean water (which are off course basic amenities but require active state participants willing to pay their dues i-e taxes). All of us have to put into Pakistan – financially, physically and morally to turn the system around. It is sad that we don’t, but we can always work for the future. Maybe then someday we too can hold out head up high when we bring home medals from the Olympics.


Author: Mukhtar Ahmed