Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Medal tallies, Great Power Politics, and Angry White Men!

One of the most amusing things about the 2016 Olympic Games was that the medal tally bore an astonishing resemblance to a table of post World War Two 'great power' nations.

Consider this 2016 medal tally list in terms of World War Two and the 1945 peace settlements, and where the various economic and colonial powers stood at the time.

1. US
2. Britain
3. China
4. Russia
5. Germany
6. Japan
7. France

Notice anything familiar about the pattern so far?

Below that, the tally becomes a little more interesting, with a surprise entrance by South Korea at number 8, but only in the last few days of the competition. Up until then the last spots switched a bit between 3 or 4 countries who eventually finished:

9. Italy
10. Australia
11. Netherlands

As Australians, we can be amused that we sneak in over the once great colonial power The Netherlands. Sometimes during the competition, we led France and Italy as well! We can also boast that we come in above Canada, which had, and still has, considerably greater population and GDP. (I suppose Canada has never taken sport as seriously as Australia... Do they even have a cricket team?)

Still, thinking about Canada brings up another interesting comparison.

Consider the Anglosphere.

The United States with way more than twice the population and close to three times the combined GDP, of the rest of the 'old' Anglosphere nations*  - Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland - still gets less medals (121) than the others (144).

Would it be fair to say that the US clearly isn't trying as hard as the rest of us?

Should we also note that the Anglosphere alone, despite consisting of only 6% of the worlds population, accounts for more than 26% of the world's medal tally?

Does this tell us anything useful about 'great powers' in general? Does it help explain why the Anglosphere has pretty much ordered the world for the last three centuries? Does it contribute to the global dominance of the English language? Or does it suggest that sports dominance equals 'soft' cultural power?

No idea, really. But someone should be able to get a research grant, even if only on the injustice of the Olympics being clearly a repressive representation of WASP culture. (After all, Catholic Ireland only counts for 8 of the Anglosphere's 265 medals... sort of proves the point really!).

What it does suggest, is that all those who claim the West in general, and the Anglosphere in particular, are in relative decline, had better check their numbers. On these figures, the Anglosphere will remain at the top of the podium for another century at least.

* (321 million US population vs a combined 130 million for the rest; and 17, 348,000 million US$ vs a combined $6,626,152 million according to Wikipedia''s Anglosphere article sourced 22.8.2016)


  1. After the USSR collapsed most Americans really don't care anymore. The Olympics were one of the Cold War Battlefields where medal counts and miraculous hockey games played out like the daily casualty lists of Vietnam and weekly dead lists during the Somme.

  2. Apparently when John Major was the UK Prime Minister, as a sports fan, he wanted to raise the medals tally. A scheme was undertaken to concentrate on those sports where contestants could become multi-medalists; cycling, swimming and rowing were the main beneficiaries.
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  4. Nigel: "The United States with way more than twice the population and close to three times the combined GDP, of the rest of the 'old' Anglosphere nations* - Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland - still gets less medals (121) than the others (144)."

    Apples and Oranges.

    Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland sent more than twice as many athletes to the Olympics.

    Despite having less than half the populace, they sent 1378.

    America sent 588.

    America sent less, but of higher quality.

    In an apples to apples comparison? Per capita like GDP?

    The United States would be allowed to send 3,500 of its best athletes to the Olympics. Or the rest of the Anglosphere would be similarly hamstrung by a new qualification regime to 240 athletes.

    The results would be rather obvious, of course.

    Needless to say, competitions are as much about probabilities and chance as they are of skill; having a larger number of participants ensures that more non-Americans will medal based simply on the number of times you can roll the dice.

    So the disparate number of athletes allowed to "qualify" from the United Sates has nothing to do with the rest of the Anglosphere having better athletes than Americans.

    It is not unusual, after all, for American athletes of dual citizenship to try to qualify for lesser competition in other countries. In fact, a large plurality of the world's athletes are trained in the United States and by Americans, which takes resources away from developing its own athletes due to the slanted qualifying system. But it is roundly acknowledged that making the American team is a far higher bar in most sports than making the Canadian team.

    I need not write the book about how or why, economically and politically, the current system in place "must" ensure that certain countries' participation rates are artifically inflated while others are simiarly depressed. Most of those being cut out of Olympic competition are quite capable of out-competing the average British or Canadian if the normal prevalence of chance tips their way. But the point is that most of those cut will never have that opportunity.

    To the contrary, the qualification system in place is specifically designed so that the United States does not overwhelm the international Olympic competition.

    It's the "everybody gets a medal" mentality, and it makes the Olympics more fun for foreigners to watch. It has nothing to do with merit, and much to do with "skewed merit".

    There was a recent International Baseball Tournament that ended when the American team defeated the South Korean team. Despite the larger American population overall, and the American reputation for Baseball, the United States almost never wins this Baseball tournament. Supposedly, the victory was somewhat pyrrhic, considering the United States should defeat the South Koreans given its "bigger population".

    So Americans are objectively inferior at Baseball the international narrative goes...

    ...until you looked into the details of the qualifying system.

    The South Korean team came drew from a population pool of hundreds of thousands of Koreans. The American team that eventually won the championship came from a little town with a population pool of...

    ...less than 17,000.

    The Americans are broken up into - literally - thousands of weaker teams, whereas the South Korean teams sport typically bigger population chunks, often a magnitude or two bigger. The district mapping of particular foreign teams is extremely slanted.

    Yes, the qualifying regime is a decisive factor for why the Americans never win the Baseball Tournament - not because are bad at Baseball, but because Americans "must" be hamstrung. And the same is true for every qualifying system for most Olympic sports in the US from Track to Curling.

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  6. Nice post indeed. However, if you take the Ryder cup as proxy rather than the Olympics you get a rather different picture. The US practically wone everytime, untill the EU joined forces. After 1985 the EU has won almost everytime (11-3).

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