fredag, september 05, 2008

The Olympic Medal table analysis

We carry the flame
For all to see
The fire and the passion, of what we can be.
Sometimes we must fight,
But we never bend
The hero keeps fighting, standing tall in the end

Meat Loaf, 1987

Jag prenumererar på ett sydafrikanskt nyhetsmail som heter "The Science of Sport". Författarna analyserar sporthändelser och resultat utifrån ett medicinskt perspektiv vilket inte alltid ger självklara svar. Deras senaste brev handlar inte förvånande om OS i Peking och jag väljer att citera delar av det. Trots avsaknad av medicinsk vinkling presenteras här intressanta uppgifter om vilka nationer som var spelens stora vinnare.

The small nations have their say
One of the more interesting means to analyse Olympic success is to convert the medals into a population per medal value. That is, compare the medals won PER PERSON, rather than an absolute number. This gives the "minnows" a chance to shine, because it's quite clear that unless something is very wrong, a nation of 200 million SHOULD win more medals than a nation of 200,000!

So let's have a look at medals won as a function of the nation's population. The Bahamas, then, are the undisputed champions of population per medal. They regularly win 2 medals per Games, and with a tiny population, have a remarkable ratio. The USA and China suddenly fall off the top perch, and win only 1 medal per 2.7 million people or 13 million people, respectively. That places them outside the top 40 on the population adjusted table.

Australia are the best of the "big" nations. It can be a little misleading doing this analysis, because the relationship between medals and size is not necessarily a straight line. So the Aussies, thanks to their intelligent investment in sport, make the most of what they have and do incredibly well given their relatively small size.

Just a note on this table - strictly speaking, one should try to "weight" the medals by awarding three points to gold, two to silver and one to bronze, and then work out a score. If you do this, then Jamaica come out on top, ahead of the Bahamas, courtesy their sprint domination and 6 gold medals in Beijing.

So, to generalize slightly, the Caribbean islands tend to dominate this list. They are small, and yet regularly win a handful of medals, mostly in the sprint events. That is testament to the genetic potential of the atheltes in those countries. I believe the key to making the most of this genetic potential is to facilitate competition with a focus on specific sports. The school athletics system in the Caribbean islands is enormously strong, and this is the big driver of these medals. Add to this a culture of the sport, plus the existence of "aspirational heroes and role models", and you have a mix that will ensure that talent comes through, despite relatively small investment and a small population. If anything, the smaller population helps the athlete come through.

Lastly, the focus is not too broad - there is no swimming team, no fencing, no table-tennis to detract from limited resources. The eggs are placed in the basket that will produce results, and that means a much simpler system to run.