Friday, August 15, 2008

On the inequitable geographical distribution of Olympic medals

There is considerable sweating and hand-wringing in the Canadian media today that, halfway into the Beijing Olympics, Canadian athletes have yet to win a medal. This sort of whining occurs every time the Olympics roll around, more so for the summer games than the winter games, much of it from reporters with little knowledge of the various Olympic sports. It tends to follow months of pre-games chest thumping by Canadian Olympic and amateur sport association bureacrats who were (perhaps) once themselves competitive athletes but now live vicariously through those who now compete. And of course, the federal government helps the hype by kicking in a couple million dollars 18 months before the Games, with the theory that if you can't buy Olympic medals, you can at least try to buy the votes of people who care about winning Olympic medals.

The fact is, the medal counts that appear in this newspaper each day reflect the inequitable distribution of the world's wealth rather than the athletic talents of the world's citizens. After a week of competition, Chinese and American athletes have won the most medals so far, with 4o and 44 respectively (the rankings in the papers tend to place China ahead of the USA because Chinese athletes have won more gold medals). Were this a world where the financial resources available to potential athletes were evenly distributed, Chinese athletes would have won 90 or more medals already, while Americans would have been satisfied with 20.

The rationale is this. At the 2004 Olympics in Athens there were 930 medals awarded (the number will change at Beijing, but because of the potential for ties, we won't know the actual total until it is over). The world's population in 2004 was approximately 6.5 billion. This means that there was one Olympic medal awarded for every 7 million people alive. Let's assume we lived in a world where the necessary financial resources and support to become an Olympic athlete were evenly distributed. Obviously, not everyone has the physiological and biological talent to become an Olympic athlete, but it is reasonable to assume that the physiological potential to win a medal is evenly distributed because there are so many Olympic events rewarding different body types (some favour tall athletes, others strong athletes, others people with endurance, etc).

Using the 1:7 million ratio, if all things were equal, China (with a population of 1.3 billion) could be expected to win a total of 185 medals, while Americans (300 million in all) could expect to win 42. Canada, with paltry 33 million residents, would expect to win between 4 and 5 medals. With many of Canada's strongest competitors competing in the second week of competition, we may still exceed this amount. The most successful country so far is actually Armenia which, with a population of only 3 million would have a less than 50% chance of winning one medal in an equitable world, but has already won 5. India, with a population of 1.1 billion but only one medal so far, is very much under-represented. In fact, the continents of Asia and Africa are disproportionately underrepresented in the Olympic medal counts, while Australasia is disproportionately over-represented. Here's a table showing the top ten medal-winning countries at the end of the first week, plus a few others of interest, ranked according to how much they are exceeding (or falling below) their equitable-world totals:

Country:  Equitable world total / Actual after 1 week

Armenia: 0 / 5
Australia: 3 / 20
S. Korea: 7 / 17
France: 9 / 18
Italy: 8-9 / 14
Germany: 12 / 14
USA: 42 / 44
Great Britain:  8-9 / 8
Russia: 20 / 19
Japan: 18 / 13
China: 185 / 40
Canada: 4-5  / 0
Indonesia: 33 / 2
India: 157 / 1

Should Canadian athletes win even one medal in the next couple days, Canada would vault ahead of China in the above rankings. But of course, we live in the "real world", where resources are not equally distributed, and where Australians, Europeans and North Americans have the financial means to ensure they have a greater chance of Olypmic glory than do the majority of the world's population.

Look at things this way: Canadian athletes are performing very well at Beijing, given that Canadian funding for elite athletes is disproportionately low in comparison with other wealthy nations. If Canadian athletes return from Beijing with a pile of personal bests, new Canadian records and a handful of medals (at it seems likely they will) they will have all we could expect of them and more. And our performance would be consitent with that in an equitable world - how very Canadian of us.

Footnote: A variation on this posting appeared in The K-W Record editorial section 16 August 2008.

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