Friday, 10 August 2012

The dark side of the Olympics

Did you know, that 37% of countries has never, ever won an Olympic medal?
Ever wondered why India, despite a population that matches that of China, 'fails to shine' on the Olympic Games? And that there were participants in the Olympics who were actually preparing in refugee camps before the event?
Continue reading, and discover what the underlying economic explanations are.

With the Olympic Games ending on this Sunday, and an approximately one-billion-large crowd watching it's opening ceremony, we are truly experiencing an Olympic craze. Every nation fanatically - and rightfully -  supports their athletes, cheers along with their winners, counts their gold, silver, and bronze medals, and so on...
Nobody talks about the losers, though. The countries which do not win medals and the countries which don't win enough medals compared to their size. This post's goal is to tell their story, and tell about the reasons of their nonperformance.

The non- and under-medalists

The list of countries that - often despite a long history of Olympic presence - whose athletes failed to gain or gain enough medals is long. These are, to mention a few: Malta, Monaco, Myanmar, Bolivia from the first, India, Indonesia from the second category and so on. While the list of these countries is huge, the factors contributing to their underperformance are the same - either size, wealth, or stability.


Most of the countries which fail to get a medal in the Games are, simply put, too small. Monaco, San Marino and Malta, for example, all have economies which could more than support the preparation of world-class athletes, but their population is too small for real talents to emerge - their combined populace barely exceeds half million souls. Hence, winning a gold medal for them would be a truly extraordinary event - if you weigh population against total medal number, like The Guardian did, you can see that Grenada, a country of 110,000 souls leads this year's alternative score list with only a single gold medal.


Most of the countries which fail to shine are also very poor. And not just the Oceanian island nations, small and poor, mostly living off Australian and New Zealandian subsidies like Nauru, Kiribati, etc. - also countries which are heavyweights in terms of population, including India, Indonesia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo - these three alone housing 1.5 billion (!) citizens.
The answer in their case is GDP(PPP) per capita. This is a fancy way of saying the value of all goods and services produced within a country in a given year(this is GDP), divided by the population for the same year(which is capita). PPP means purchasing power parity, which compensates for the differences between price levels of certain countries.  (More simply put, a training shoe costs less in Nigeria than in Switzerland, hence you can buy more stuff in Nigeria with the same amount of money. If you'd like to read more, check out the Big Mac index here and here.)

Now what does a bad score on the GDP per capita list mean? It means, that the country's economy can only provide a very limited amount of goods and resources to each of it's citizens. India is 129th, Indonesia is 122th and the Democratic Republic of Congo is 183th, according to IMF.
That means no fancy training shoes and swimming pools for sportsmen either - many Olympians from these countries prepare without equipment and even in refugee camps, like Aguida Amaral of East Timor. Their poor results are, hence understandable - and even their participation is something worthy of the world's awe.

3. Stability

Finally, many of the countries have simply lacked the internal stability to either participate, or be successful during the Olympics. Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea and many other African countries have been tide locked in civil wars and a series of coups throughout the century, essentially preventing them for establishing a functioning Olympic committee in the first place. Perhaps their story is the most tragical - in countries where oftentimes merely survival is an achievement, participation in the Olympics is a far-fetched dream.

To quote Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the father of the modern Olympic Games:
“Sport must be the heritage of all men and of all social classes.”
It is disillusioning that after 116 years, his words are yet to come to fruition.


Update: We are currently in the process of making a blog claim on Technorati.The following code: P4G66FR4PT9D is listed for technical purpuoses.


  1. Interresting, slightly releated fact: We could have flown 5 additional Curiosity rovers to Mars (cost: $2.5 billion) using the combined cost of the 2012 London Olympics (cost: $14.5 billion). Or who knows what else we could have found out via tech and research using that money. Makes one wonder...

    1. G, thanks for the comment. The London Olympics are indeed one of the most expensive games, as it can be seen on this infographic: