Now that the Olympics is behind us and the countdown to Rio 2016 has begun, introspection generally takes place in countries that have fared rather poorly at the Olympics. Why do some countries do better than the rest in the biggest sporting event in the world? Is there a co-relation between development and performance at the Olympics? Are there similarities between how a country is placed in the international trade arena and it's performance at the Olympics? I had blogged earlier about the medal count at the Olympics and it's relation to international economics here.
Project Syndicate has two extremely engaging pieces on the possible relationship between economic development in it's various facets and Olympic performance. It highlights the inextricable link between a sound economic national base and sporting prowess.
Robert Skidelsky predicts the performance at the Olympics is based on key economic indicators including GDP in his piece.
"The most striking finding is that the medal count can be predicted with great accuracy from four key variables: population, GDP per capita, past performance, and host status. Everything else – different training structures, better equipment, and so forth – is pretty much noise.
CommentsThe impact of population and GDP is obvious: A large population increases the chance that a country will have athletes with the natural talent to win medals, and a high GDP means that it will have the money to invest in the infrastructure and training needed to develop medal-winning athletes.Comments
Past performance is also important: the visibility and prestige of a sport increases after Olympic success, as does funding. Medals attract money; failure results in cuts."
Drawing an interesting parallel between "picking winners" in terms of encouraging a particular sport so that the chances of an Olympic medal are high and the "State" picking sectors to drive economic development, he seems to support a "State capitalism" model. China would probably fit into this description - it has done exceedingly well both in the Olympics and on the economic front.
"Nothing is more discredited in Anglo-American economics than the policy of “picking winners.” The consensus has been that it inevitably leads to the state “backing losers.” Economic success, on this view, is best left to the unfettered play of market forces.
CommentsThis philosophy has been heavily jolted by two inconvenient facts: the financial collapse of 2007-2008 and the experience of countries like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Germany, and even the US, where economic success depended heavily on sustained government investment of the kind that has produced Olympic medals. As in sports, so in economic life: government commitment can start a virtuous circle of success, while government neglect can trigger a vicious circle of decline."
Another contribution from Zaki Laidi titled "Olympolitik" highlights the role of population, economic development, a sports policy and sports traditions as the reasons for performance at the Olympics.
"There are, in fact, four factors behind Olympic power: population size, sports traditions, sports policy, and level of development. Taken separately, none of these factors can explain a country’s Olympic record. Collectively, however, their explanatory power is relatively large."
Ofcourse, there may be a variety of reasons for Olympic success and a number of countries would be proving to be counter-examples to the generalizations set forth in the two articles above. However, the analysis made above seems to be well borne out by Olympic performance in the past decades. It raises important issues about the role of the State in sports development especially as a facilitator and supporter. Like in a globalized world, while State involvement in the economy is a necessary constituent of development, it's nature, extent and motives remain as relevant to international trade as much as to sport's policy. The venue shifts, but the issues remain the same!
And yes, this is my last piece on the Olympics till 2016!