Citius, Altius, Fortius: Understanding the Drivers of Olympic Glory

My earliest memories of the Olympics are that of Carl Lewis running away with 4 Golds at the 1984 Los Angeles Games. And then attempting the same in the 1988 Seoul Games – till being stunned by Ben Johnson in the 100 m finals. Eventually, after 3 days, he got that too – due to, perhaps, the most high-profile dope in history being discovered.

Another memory that always used to come to mind is the way Americans and Russians dominated most of the medal tallies. And then you had an occasional Great Britain and Germany, and you had some from Japan and Australia.

The usual explanations for the medal tallies of these countries were ‘these are all rich countries and they have the money’! Or they have culture of sports. Americans have a university system that has sports at the center of it. Or Russians train their gymnasts from the age of 4 in a regimented environment. Or Australia has a sporting society and culture.

And then China came around with their stupendous tally in the 2004 and 2008 games. And then we said ‘China has the population and the money. And they have now built a sporting culture.’ Well maybe yes, may be not.

So what are the drivers of Olympic success by a country? I wish there were simple answers like ‘do this and this will happen’. Unfortunately, there are not. But there definitely are some factors that indicate a method to the madness. There is no doubt, that there are a few drivers of medal tally success at the Olympics, at a country level.

The intuitive drivers are GDP (richness) and Population (number of people). The argument being that those with a high GDP and a high enough population to direct some money towards have a good chance of creating champions.

Rank Nation and Population Gold Silver Bronze Total
1  China (CHN) 1,336 Mn 51 21 28 100
2  United States (USA) 313 Mn 36 38 36 110
3  Russia (RUS) 139 Mn 23 21 29 73
4  Great Britain (GBR) 63 Mn 19 13 15 47
5  Germany (GER) 82 Mn 16 10 15 41
6  Australia (AUS) 22 Mn 14 15 17 46
7  South Korea (KOR) 49 Mn 13 10 8 31
8  Japan (JPN) 127 Mn 9 6 10 25
9  Italy (ITA) 62 Mn 8 9 10 27
10  France (FRA) 66 Mn 7 16 18 41
Rank Country GDP (purchasing power parity) (Billion $)
1 United States 14,660
2 China 10,090
3 Japan 4,310
4 India 4,060
5 Germany 2,940
6 Russia 2,223
7 United Kingdom 2,173
8 Brazil 2,172
9 France 2,145
10 Italy 1,774

While the above tables indicate that there is some correlation between GDP, Population and the Medals Tally, they are not strictly linear. It is not as if with increasing GDP or population, your tally will increase.

Moreover, there are some very large exceptions from this list, like India, Indonesia and Brazil with seriously large populations and economies who do not figure in the medals list. In fact, they are way down with hardly any medals to speak of.

Similarly, there are some major exceptions on the other side too. A small economy like Kenya is just below the top 10, and with population less than Beijing or Delhi alone, Australia is a serious outlier based on population and GDP alone, and must be doing something right to get into the top 10.

So all in all, ‘Richness’ and ‘Populousness’ are not drivers in the sense of being determinants – but definitely good starting points. We can, at best, be sure that a country with a small economy and a small population hardly stands a chance of being in that list.

If one does a more in-depth analysis of where do the medal tallies come from, some other factors come to light.

If one looks at the breakup of the medals won by China in 2008, 62 of their 100 medals (38 out of 51 Golds) have come from 6 disciplines (they won medals in 22). And these 6 disciplines include neither athletics nor swimming which has a high number of medals on offer.

Medals by sport
Sport Gold medal icon.svg Silver medal icon.svg Bronze medal icon.svg Total
Gymnastics 11 2 5 18
Weightlifting 8 1 0 9
Diving 7 1 3 11
Shooting 5 2 1 8
Table tennis 4 2 2 8
Badminton 3 2 3 8

So China did not decide one fine day – great, we have people and we have money, now let’s create some athletes and swimmers to beat the Americans!

If one looks at a similar breakup of medals won by the USA, a similar picture emerges. These five disciplines account for 77 out of the 110 medals won by the US in 2008.

Medals by sport
Sport Gold medal icon.svg Silver medal icon.svg Bronze medal icon.svg Total
Swimming 12 9 10 31
Track and field 8 9 7 24
Gymnastics Artistic 2 6 2 10
Fencing 1 3 2 6
Shooting 2 2 2 6

This success is due to a clear focus on specific disciplines. These, generally, are the ones a nation has a historical or cultural predisposition towards.

This is substantiated by other examples like the former USSR (and later its splinters) and the East European nations consistently dominating sports like Weight-Lifting. Or even nations with relatively smaller medal tallies focusing on their strengths – like Kenya on Long Distance running, or even Malaysia on badminton, or even India in the past on hockey.

Majority of all track and field games are won by athletes with Afro-American descent. Athletes from mainland Africa have dominated long distance running for decades. Swimming continues to be a strong area for European-descent sports persons. Indoor games are a major strength for Asian athletes. Australia has built a strong outdoor sporting culture.

One realises that once one has a potent combination of a decent population and reasonable GDP, how successful one is at the games is also driven by two other factors. These factors seems to be firstly, your population pool which gives a country a natural edge as well as cultural and systemic strengths in a some sports, and secondly, how well you make the structure of the Olympic games and medals on offer in various events itself work to your advantage by focus. Spotting talent and putting money behind them, as well as training and hard work are a given, but that alone will not lead to anything unless it is focused on areas that one has inherent advantages in and one is smart in using them.

Though the Olympics motto says that participating is more important than winning, the truth of the matter is that the Olympics glory is about sporting excellence, so anything less than excellence will not fetch medals. Each medal winner has to be among the best 3 in the world for that event, and that is not easy. So just sending your best athlete in a discipline is probably not the right approach. But having a conscious strategy of focus on disciplines where you have natural advantage, and then channeling your resources to create champions in that event at a world level may yield long term results. Once you are among the best in a field, generally commercial success follows – leading to a spiral effect for that discipline and further compounding the benefits to a nation.

For countries to convert their hope into reality and hence, figure in the medals tally, a combination of a pool of talent, money and focus based on inherent strengths are prerequisites. In India, we can be optimistic that we have no dearth of the first one.  And, hopeful that the second one has just started coming into sports other than cricket.  Unless these two and the third come together, we are not being realistic.

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