Winning gold, no mystery

Published : 8 August 2012, 10:15 AM
Updated : 8 August 2012, 10:15 AM

As we watch the 2012 Olympics, and marvel at feats of dazzling performance, one question will run through many Bangladeshi minds: Will we ever win a medal?

At the moment Bangladesh not only suffers the ignoble distinction of being one of 80 or so countries that has never won a medal but also (as boorishly pointed out by American commentators) the one with the largest population.

So, what is holding us back?

The correlation between economic prosperity and excellence in athletics is commonsensical. However, economics is not the only factor, nor is its effect always straight-forward. Countries like Kenya and Nigeria have averaged more medals per Summer games since 1992 than a larger nation like India or a prosperous (and quite athletic) one like Thailand.

Dan Johnson, a professor at Colorado College, has made a name for himself using economic data to predict medals tally by country with more than 90% accuracy. In addition to income and population, his model accounts for two other factors: a host-nation effect and a "nation-specific culture effect." What Johnson's work doesn't do, however, is explain the effect on medals of marginal differences of income, which can be crucial for poorer countries like Bangladesh. Nor does he define what exactly constitutes "nation-specific cultural effect."

It is not good enough to look at total population or GDP in general. What one needs to do is determine the portion of population that is within a range of income necessary to train competitively enough for Olympic standards from the right age. For simplicity's sake, one could define that income as USD $10,000/year in case of higher income countries and $5000/year for lower income ones (allowing for purchasing power parity effects). Using median income of countries, and likely populations in different ranges, it becomes possible to assess the "medal-potential population (MPP)."

The chart here provides a layman's desk-top calculation to arrive at an MPP for top performing countries. The chart looks at countries that have won at least one medal since 1992 and also won at least one gold medal since then.

Here is a hyperlink to the full summary and methods of the calculation.

The 50 countries who meet the minimum criteria of consistency and excellence are, interestingly, neither all rich nor large. In fact, 18 of the 50 countries who meet these criteria have an estimated MPP of 5 million or fewer. As a low-income country, Bangladesh's MPP should be assumed to be no more than 1% of the population, but given the size of our black and grey economies, it may in fact be two to three times higher, or close to five million!

Why can 18 nations with an equal size MPP consistently win medals when Bangladesh cannot? We have accounted for the effects of income and population. We cannot leverage the host-nation advantage anytime soon. So, the only factor remaining is "nation-specific cultural effect."

Culture is a nebulous term, and needs to be narrowed down to something measurable for the purpose of planning. Luckily, a great deal of recent research across a wide array of fields does provide insights when it comes to training for and measuring excellence in performance.

Best summarized by Geoff Colvin in the book "Talent is Overrated," his ground-breaking research shows that, more than income, more than any inherent IQ or "talent", what separates world-class performers from ordinary beings is that the former put in at least 10,000 hours of practice, usually quite early on in their career.

This is why, measured in terms of medals per million MPP, North Korea – where the state clearly allocates significant resources to training athletes – tops the list. Australia outperforms America by this count, even though America wins more medals overall and is by far the biggest winner historically.

So, if Bangladesh truly wants to win an Olympic medal, it has to find a way to deliver 10,000 hours of practice per athlete at the right age. This is not the same as saying that one needs a lot more training for a lot more people. Neither building one great academy nor expanding school sports in general will do the trick. What one needs to do is something far more specific and targeted.

First, identify sports where we can be competitive, given logistical requirements and any in-built capacity. Bangladesh won a Commonwealth gold in shooting without an extensive or consistent program of training. It would not take too much to quadruple the number of athletes being trained, or to deliver 10,000 hours of practice to the most promising of them. That's all it would take to go from Commonwealth to Olympic gold.

To deliver that amount of training to the right talents in the right sports would of course need informed, targeted planning and a higher degree of competence and integrity in execution than the prevailing local standard.

Policy alone – even well executed – is, however, never enough by itself. The broader culture needs to change. A country that has recently expressed a desire to become a "middle-income country" is not symptomatic of a nation burning with a desire to excel, to become the best. The Chinese would not be content with just to become "good enough."

No one is saying we need to win Olympic medals. It is perfectly okay to muddle along in contented mediocrity. What is not okay is then to blame our athletes for their losses. We are not under-served by our athletes. It is they who are under-served by us.

Somewhere in Bangladesh, some girl is somersaulting around her living room, and some boy is leaving his friends in the dust in a race up the street. But we are not doing enough to get either of them to Rio.

K. Anis Ahmed is vice-president of the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh.