Monday, 30 July 2012

War minus the shooting?

I caught that Tim Harford on the radio this morning, making an obvious, but interesting, point about national Olympic medal tallies. In Beijing, China amassed an impressive haul of medals, a lot of them gold. But with a population of 1.3 billion people and enough money in the economy to support large numbers of elite athletes, those numbers shouldn't be that astonishing. Wouldn't a fairer measure of national athletic prowess need to take some account of the size of population it takes to produce a world beater?

To get a feel for this, here are the top ten national gold medal tallies from the 2008 summer games:
Nation Number of gold medals
China 51
USA 36
Russia 23
GB 19
Germany 16
Australia 14
S. Korea 13
Japan 9
Italy 8
France 7
And here are the same nations, with the population size,* divided by the number of gold medals awarded:
Nation Millions of people per gold medal
Australia 1.5
GB 3.3
S. Korea 3.8
Germany 5.1
Russia 6.1
Italy 7.5
USA 8.5
France 9.3
Japan 14.2
China 25.9
This metric supports the Aussies' rep as the world's most sports-mad nation, as well as team GB's pride, whilst making China look not quite that impressive. Include some of the smaller nations that won gold and the list of the world's most efficient gold medal-producing nations looks even more different and knocks China well out of the top ten.

I haven't looked at all the 200-odd competing nations, but a quick glance confirms that Ukraine, with a population of around 45.5 million bagged seven gold medals, or one per 6.5 million people, so did better than Italy. Canada, at one gold per 11.6 million citizens didn't do quite so well, but still out-performed Japan and China. Romania got 4 golds (about one for every 4.8 million people, so better than Russia). When you get down to really tiny populations and one or two gold medals, you could argue that it all gets a bit skewed by random variations in performance (Switzerland's 2 golds would be one per 4 million people, or better than Germany, whilst tiny Estonia's solitary gold went to a nation of just 1.3 million, technically beating Australia.

But most impressive of all, by this measure, is Jamaica, an island of 2.7 million people whose athletes came home with six golds (three courtesy of Usain St. Leo Bolt), or one gold medal per 451,000 people.

I'm not claiming that this is the best or fairest way of looking at things. There are, obviously, lots of other factors in play. 118 countries failed to win a medal of any sort in Beijing, comfortably outnumbering the 86 medal-winning nations. Some of those 118 were tiny, some were big, but just poor. Bangladesh, a country of nearly 150 million people has been competing since 1984, but (at the time of writing) has never won an Olympic medal of any sort. With a per capita GDP of $1,693 there's not much to spare for track and field training and most talented Bangladeshi youths could no more fly to the moon than access expensive kit like  Laser sailing dinghies, carbon fibre bows and arrows or Olympic standard racing bikes.

Then there are things like the detailed demographics and the complex interplay with wealth. All things being equal, a country where the median age is just over 19, like Nigeria has a proportionally bigger pool of potential up-and-coming Olympic talent than the UK (median age about 37). But as we've seen  things aren't equal and the UK has the infrastructure to support more of its elite athletes than Nigeria.

Although fair adjustments are elusive, I would say that unadjusted raw medal tallies don't even come close to giving meaningful international comparisons. I don't think that many people could fail to grasp this point, so I wonder whether the general reluctance to give some context to the figures is a sort of category mistake. Orwell famously said that:
Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence. In other words, it is war minus the shooting.
I'm not so sure. It's only when international sporting events are seen as something akin to war that unadjusted medal tallies make any kind of sense. War is pretty much a zero sum game, with only the most elastic rules.

Imagine that the tiny nation of West Xylophone is invaded, defeated and occupied by its populous and powerful neighbour, Symphonia. The plucky West Xylophonese fight hard and well, holding off the Symphonian hordes with a combination of bravery and ingenuity, causing disproportionate damage to the invaders until they are eventually overcome by vastly superior numbers and firepower. As this is war, not sport, there can be only one winner, Symphonia. The fact that the West Xylophonese performed better in proportion to their numbers is irrelevant. Might makes, if not right, at least the reality on the ground. Symphonia won the war and West Xylophone lost and any observer claiming that West Xylophone "technically" won the war would be talking rubbish.

If the Symphonian Olympic squad comes up against Team West Xylophone, though, the situation is rather different. Sure, people sometimes cheat, or fail to live up to the highest standards of honourable competition, but sport is far more tightly regulated and rule-bound than war. There are rules and norms in war, but a field of activity in which killing people - albeit in approved ways - is seen as inevitable and normal is a hell of a lot more unregulated than one where taking the wrong hay fever meds, or tripping, shoving, or verbally abusing an opponent will incur punishment, whilst detectably breaching the rules of your sport will result in you losing the competition. In contrast, an admired military commander is expected to take unfair advantages, break the rules, deceive the enemy and do anything short of committing atrocities in order to win the battle.

The results of victory and defeat in war and sport are immensely different. Instead of invading and defeating West Xylophone in war, say Symphonia simply bags more Olympic gold in absolute terms, whilst West Xylophone, rather than fighting well but being militarily overwhelmed gains fewer medals in absolute terms, (but more in proportion to the nation's size). In this case you can make a perfectly good case for both nations having done well. The effect of sporting "defeat" (i.e. getting a lower absolute number of medals than a larger competing country) is nothing like the catastrophe of military defeat. Nobody dies, or becomes a refugee, nobody's home gets occupied by a hostile power,** the economy of the nation with the fewest medals isn't trashed. The athletes simply take their five minutes on the podium, then everybody goes home again and starts working towards the next set of quadrennial games, without anybody's homeland having been devastated.

Just because some people treat sport as if it's war minus the shooting doesn't mean that the two activities are really at all similar. Looking at unadjusted national medal totals, with their implied story of absolute victory and defeat, makes these two unrelated things look deceptively alike.

* population figures for the largest nations from here. Others from Wikipedia figures for roughly the right time frame (this is just back of the envelope stuff).

**London's residents and businesses might feel that their city is under occupation, what with the Zil lanes, the rooftop missiles and the Brand Exclusion Zone, but that's not quite the same thing.



As if to prove my point, four pairs of women's doubles badminton players have been disqualified from the current Olympics for deliberately trying to throw matches in order to secure a more favourable draw in the next round. Orwell might have thought that serious sport was distinguished by a 'disregard of all rules' but, in reality, sport penalises those who get caught flagrantly breaching the rules. In warfare, ruthlessly taking an unfair advantage generally results in victory. When Hannibal surprised the Romans by unexpectedly turning up with more elephants than any defending army could have reasonably expected, there was no umpire around to jump up and revoke his victory at Cannae on the grounds of unsporting behaviour.