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Wednesday, March 12, 2014
- The Olympic Games are widely viewed as a chance for countries to showcase their fastest, strongest, most skilled and disciplined athletes, a time when political, economic and cultural differences are set aside and individuals are judged on personal merit alone.
Not surprisingly, recent research shows that for a variety of reasons, poorer countries tend to win fewer medals in the Olympics, with a direct correlation between performance and economic well- being, particularly national infrastructure and social services.
For example, people from poor countries seldom do well in swimming since they usually don’t have access to swimming pools, and the same is true for diving.
In the 2008 Olympics, the first five winners of medals for swimming were the United States, Australia, Great Britain, Japan and Germany.
“Most sports accomplishments require a fair amount of social and financial support for training, facilities and travel,” William Orme, a spokesperson for the United Nations Development Programme Human Development Index Unit, told IPS. “This means that better off countries are usually doing better.”
It’s not just a matter of size, either – even after total population has been taken into account, the relationship between development and medal totals is a significant one.
The report, by researchers at the Institute for Democracy and Conflict Resolution (IDCR) at the University of Essex, analysed the ranking of countries on the UNDP’s Human Development Index and the number of medals handed out at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, China.
The U.S. won a total of 110 medals in the 2008 Olympic Games, making it the top performer at Beijing. At the same time, the United States ranked fourth in the 2008 Human Development Index, with a high score of 0.907.
At the other end of the spectrum was conflict-torn Democratic Republic of Congo, whose athletes left Beijing without any medals at all, and which scored 0.24 on the HDI.
The data on these and the other countries participating in the Olympics can be found on a series of web-based maps the Institute for Democracy and Conflict Resolution published on its website.
Orme, who calls the correlation “kind of obvious”, notes that most young people participate in some kind of sports, but when they can go to school, they do it in a more organised fashion. And when they are healthier, they perform better.
Some exceptions to the rule
Researchers note that the imbalance doesn’t hold true for all Olympic athletes across all events. For instance, Ethiopia ranked 157th on the HDI in 2008, with an index of 0.33, but was 29th on the 2008 medals table with seven medals.
In the field of athletics – sprinting, for example – several developing countries scored high, with Kenya ranking third, having won 14 medals, six of them gold. Jamaica came in fourth with 11 medals, and Ethiopia won seven medals.
“Ethiopia is an exception, mainly concerning the sport of running,” Thierry Graf, who served as president of the Ethiopian-Suisse development association Sport – The Bridge, told IPS.
He explained that running – which requires virtually no special equipment – is very popular throughout the country, in cities as well as the countryside.
“Running effectively does not need infrastructure and specific material and thus can be performed by anyone regardless of his or her socio-economic status,” he said.
While running and hurdling need little more than a road or track, good shoes and energy drinks can also boost performance, which might explain why the U.S. still won most of the medals in the field of athletics (a total of 23).
Graf believes that governments should put more emphasis on creating policies that give all citizens, regardless of income, an opportunity to pursue sports.
“Backed by my experience with Sport – The Bridge, I think that the development of ‘sports for all’ can achieve several goals, like social value creation, health and popularisation of a specific sport, at the same time,” he said.
For the Olympic Games to be genuinely open and democratic requires public investment not only in sports facilities, but also in health care and education.
“Having public support for sports and recreation is part of human development,” Orme said. “It’s a question of both public resources and priorities.”
Still, this might not counteract the phenomenon of “muscle drain”, in which talented athletes from poor countries are wooed by wealthy sports clubs abroad.
This practice is named after the “brain drain” in which educated high-tech and medical personnel from India, Cuba or other developing countries are hired by firms and hospitals in Europe or the United States.
The muscle-drain phenomena is most widespread in football, a sport in which the high transfer rates that European players can demand from clubs make them resort to the much cheaper alternative of importing players from developing countries.
“Young people look for a better life. Sports is a field where a huge income jump is possible, and thus they are attracted to try it,” Graf said.
Graf said it was problematic that this was a largely unregulated field, with the danger that young people, who in the end are not good enough to receive a contract on a professional level, are left on their own in the host country, become illegal migrants and are at risk of falling into poverty and criminal activities.
“It would be desirable that such international associations commit themselves to a sort of code of conduct regarding the treatment of the youngsters,” he added.
With less than two months before the London Games open on Jul. 27, 185 countries have qualified at least one athlete to compete.
However, a vast gulf remains. Haiti, still recovering from the effects of its devastating 2010 earthquake, has only qualified two athletes. The country has not won an Olympic medal since 1928.
Meanwhile, the United States currently has 183 Olympic qualifiers, and 64 Paralympic qualifiers.
In a statement, Professor Todd Landman, director of the IDCR, noted, “As we celebrate the wonder of the Olympics this year, it is important to reflect on the politics and economics that shape the games, as well as the many challenging obstacles that this year’s dedicated athletes have had to overcome to take part.
“The financial crisis, the fallout of the Arab Spring and the continued rise of the BRIC countries will certainly be at the forefront of our minds this summer. The Olympic Dream is a small window into the complex world of today.”