Thursday 20 Sep 2018 | 05:08 | SYDNEY
Thursday 20 Sep 2018 | 05:08 | SYDNEY

Olympic productivity


Mark Thirlwell

6 August 2008 15:10

I admit it. I just don’t get the Olympics.* In fact, when they came to Sydney my better half and I decamped to Patagonia on the grounds that it might just be far enough away to avoid all the hype. It almost worked. I also managed to more or less ignore Athens. But no such luck with Beijing, since the geo-political element means that it’s almost impossible to evade the commentary even when I restrict myself to work-related publications. So, since resistance is clearly useless, can I instead offer up a small suggestion relating to measuring Olympic productivity?

The basic measure of country success seems to be the final medal tally. It’s also increasingly common to adjust this to look at some version of medals won per capita, on the grounds that the size of a country’s population is likely to influence its ability to produce successful athletes. The ABS produced a version of this for the Athens games, which shows Australia doing remarkably well. Much more infrequently, some sort of link between medals and GDP per capita is also produced, given that wealth is also likely to be an important factor driving medal success.  Indeed, forecasting exercises like this one suggest that a way to predict medal success is precisely to look at population and GDP per capita (along with host nation status, previous performance, and past membership in the former Soviet bloc).

My suggestion is that it would be good to go one better, and look at medal tallies ranked by the dollars spent to earn them. For example, one past estimate suggested that the cost to Australia per gold medal might be up to $40 million. So I’d like to see a post-Beijing medal table that ranked countries by how much they had to spend per medal won – which if nothing else would give us some useful information about relative Olympic productivity. 

It might also put the idea of fair competition into some perspective. We often hear – perfectly reasonably – complaints that competition in some Olympic sports is tainted because some of the athletes competing will seek an unfair advantage by turning to illegal chemistry. It would also be interesting to think about the idea of fair competition given the vastly different financial resources likely to be devoted to the athletes from different countries – something which doesn’t just apply to the Olympics, of course.

*This isn’t intended as some condescending anti-sport rant.  For my part, I happily confess that I obsessed over the European championships despite the absence (by definition) of Australia and (by ineptitude) of England, and was even more excited about the World Cup. As far as I’m concerned, each to their own sporting extravaganza. But if you do want to read a real snark about the Olympics, see this post from the FT’s Willem Buiter. Highlight or lowlight, depending on your point of view: ‘One of the positive side effects of global warming could be that it kills off the Winter Olympics, because there won’t be winters any longer.’