October 29, 2005

One Year of Being Amateur

I don't want to spend too much time navel-gazing, but one year ago today I started this blog, and I wanted to say a few words about that.


I wrote 136 posts in the past year, ranging from the very short to the very long. Here are some of my favourites.

© United Features Syndicate

Last week I had my first week with more than 200 unique visitors, according to StatCounter. That's a pretty small number, of course, but it's progress. The graph at right shows the number of unique visitors, and the number of returning visitors, for the last 24 weeks; I didn't keep track before that point.

When you're creating a new web site, it's a good idea to give the title a Google, to make sure that nobody else is using it, and to catch any unintended meanings. If you try that, you'll find that the first hits that don't refer to this site are talking about amateur porn. That fact did not escape me when I named the blog; I thought of it as a kind of inside joke. When I started tracking visitors, I didn't see much evidence that people were coming to Now That's Amateur looking for nude shots of the girl next door … until recently, that is.

In the last few weeks, I've been getting quite a few visitors looking for this image, which puzzled me for a while. There has been a steady flow of visitors from Google image search; so I knew that a fairly large number of people were finding my Dilbert cartoon in their query, but I couldn't deduce what that query might be.

I think, though, that I may have figured it out.


There have been 103 legitimate comments (not spam) in a year. You can assume that half of those have been by me. One of my readers told me that I would get more comments if I wrote more things that weren't obviously true; I suppose that I could take that as a compliment. Actually, 103 is not quite as low as it sounds; there were only six in the first three months.

The post that generated the largest number of comments and the largest number of individual commenters was WR ≠ PB.

Other Developments

I recently changed my template, so that it doesn't look exactly like this any more. I'm also changing over to comments by HaloScan. (For a while you will see an "Old Comments" link and a "New Comments" link, while I manually transfer all of the old comments.) I have been wanting to change over for a while anyway, because I think that it's a better system than Blogger's, but something special happened recently that spurred me to action.

Starting next week, my posts to Now That's Amateur will be cross-posted at CanSport.com. CanSport.com is a web site devoted to year-round coverage of top-level amateur sport and provides daily news, information, and commentary about Canada's elite athletes. I'm really excited about the opportunity to be the first blog on CanSport.com and I hope that we'll see more comments from the CanSport audience. The HaloScan commenting service will allow comments from both sites to be seen by all readers.

Finally, thanks to all of you for reading! I really appreciate the chance to discuss sports with some old friends, and I have enjoyed making a few new ones through this blog. If you've got any general comments about the blog, this would be a good place to leave them (click on the New Comment link below).

October 27, 2005

Bob, Weave, Stick the IOC With the Blame

As I predicted, the IOC has rejected the addition of women's boxing for the 2008 summer Olympics. Boxing will remain the only sport on the summer programme that does not include women.

I have expressed my doubts a couple of times now about the sincerity of the AIBA proposal. They have not demonstrated any willingness to make sacrifices to the men's events, which will be necessary if women's events are added. On top of that, all signs suggest that the AIBA is run by a bunch of incompetents. I theorized before that the proposal to add women's boxing was largely for show, so that they could claim to be fighting for gender equity while putting the black hat on the IOC.

It looks like the strategy has worked, as the CNN.com article ran under the headline Olympic chiefs KO women's boxing. Expect the usual wailing and gnashing of teeth from the usual sources, decrying the Rich White Men who run the IOC.

In this case, I think that the criticism is unwarranted, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the criticism is misdirected. The truth is that women's boxing is not ready for the Olympics — the most recent World Championships, for example, very nearly didn't happen. And why is the AIBA holding the women's world championship as an event separate from the men's, anyway? Is that what they call "including" a women's discipline? I guess they have made it pretty clear which discipline is the undercard and which is the main event.

Let's remember that it is not the IOC's job to develop women's boxing as an international sport. Amateur female boxers should hold the AIBA responsible for this failure, in my opinion. I don't expect it to go that way, though.

The IOC did agree to some female-friendly changes to the events on the Olympic programme, expanding the number of women's teams in soccer, field hockey, and handball, and adding a women's steeplechase in athletics.

They also agreed to add an open water swimming race for men and women, while rejecting a request to add six events in the pool (men's and women's 50m butterfly, backstroke, and breaststroke). This is a bit off the original topic, but I think that's a sound decision. I like swimming and all, but I don't think we need another six instances of the same old thing done by the same old athletes. A 10 km open-water swim is, at least, something completely different.

October 24, 2005

We're Slicker Than You

Late last week I received the latest issue of the Olympians Canada newsletter in the mail. That's the first time I've been sent a hard copy, and the eight-page bilingual foldout was noticeably slicker than previous issues. I scanned it through once before I noticed the subtitle: The Most Exclusive Club in the Nation.

Olympians Canada newsletter, Vol. 2, Issue 3

In case you don't know — and I am guessing that most of you poor excluded sods do not — Olympians Canada is sort of the COC's alumni organization for Olympic athletes. In the interests of full disclosure, I should admit that I have played a small role in (unsuccessfully, so far) trying to get the local chapter of this organization off the ground. The obnoxious slogan, however, is new.

Leaving aside the dubious factual basis for the claim (fact: Canada sent more than a thousand athletes to just the five summer Olympics between 1988 and 2004), this is simply very bad P.R. Now, I know that Olympians Canada is a very athlete-centred organization, and of course I understand that Olympic athletes love being reminded how special they are. (Otherwise, I wouldn't have mentioned it, would I?) But even if public outreach is not your primary mission, is this really the best way to keep the "Olympic spirit" alive? Hello there, I'm an Olympic athlete, and you're not, eh?

Just for fun, I did a Google search for other groups that might lay claim to the title of "most exclusive club in the nation". Of course, a really exclusive club would probably not be boasting about their exclusivity on the internet, but I was curious more about the perception than the fact. My search turned up three unique hits, all of them referring to a single body: the 100 elected representatives of the US Senate.

October 20, 2005

Is Athlete Protest Dead?

Recently I've been thinking a bit about athletes and social conscience; whether elite athletes are less likely than the general population to speak out against social injustice, and if so, why that might be; and also whether particular athletes shy away from controversy at the expense of their principles, and whether we should hold their silence against them.

In other words, I've been exercising the atrophied right side of my brain. I'm not sure yet what will come of that, but I'll get back to you. In the meantime, some new food for thought: Tommie Smith and John Carlos have been immortalized at San Jose State.

In 1968, Smith and Carlos, the gold and bronze medallists in the 200m, stood on the Olympic medal podium without shoes. During the playing of the US national anthem, they stood with heads down and black-gloved fists raised.

As with most such symbols, these gestures have come to mean many different things to different people. Clearly the protesters were speaking out against the oppression of African-Americans in the United States. Both men were very active in the civil rights movement long before the Olympics. In 1968, they became involved with the Olympic Project for Human Rights, led by a professor from SJSU named Harry Edwards. OPHR had tried to organize an Olympic boycott by black American athletes that never materialized. It is often reported that the podium protest was "inspired" by Edwards; Carlos himself discounts Edwards' influence:

Harry had nothing whatsoever to do with it. That's one of the things that needs to be straightened out and will be straightened out. It was a decision, collectively, between Tommie Smith and John Carlos … he wanted to ride on what Tommie Smith and John Carlos did.

Of course the Olympics provide a global stage, not just a national one, and to some extent the protest was part of a much larger picture and linked to the civil rights movement around the world. Just before the start of the 1968 games, several hundred students and workers were killed by security forces in Mexico City. In a strange coincidence of timing, Mexican authorities announced earlier this month that they will bring charges against interior minister (and later president) Luis Echeverria in connection with that massacre.

Justice has also been long in coming for Smith and Carlos. As a reward for their their peaceful protests, the two sprinters were suspended from all further competition and sent home by the USOC. They were not quickly forgiven. In certain quarters, their actions were even linked to the tragedy in 1972. By wordlessly expressing an uncomfortable truth, they had "politicized" the Olympic Games.

Tommie Smith has some thoughts on the questions that started this post: "What happened back then can never happen again, because the dollar bill has ruined the pride of justice." I think that this is an argument worth considering. It is also interesting to ask whether public attitudes toward this kind of protest have changed in the last 37 years. Would an athlete be sent home from a competition and publicly rebuked for making a non-violent protest of this sort today?

Has the world changed so much? Consider the case of Canadian swimmer Jennifer Carroll and the uproar (scroll down) she caused when she carried a Québec flag onto the Commonwealth Games medal podium. Dave Johnson, the team's head coach, forced Carroll to apologize to her teammates, and to him, and made a direct comparison between her action and the Smith/Carlos protest in 1968 — clearly implying that such non-conformist behaviour was unacceptable.

In my opinion, however, most of the controversy surrounded Mr. Johnson's actions; most people did not object to Carroll's gesture. Johnson has since been fired, and I do not think that Carroll's athletic career suffered as a result of her actions. Of course, those actions did not constitute a protest since Carroll denied that she was expressing any political sentiment. The connection to 1968 is tenuous indeed.

So, two more questions for me to think about: will the Olympics ever see another Tommie Smith and John Carlos? And if so, how will the world react?

October 18, 2005

Wishful Wushu

I don't know what it is about Jacques Rogge, but it seems that he can't open his mouth without being misinterpreted in the press.

In April, Rogge discussed the impending vote on the makeup of the 2012 Olympic programme:

  • Rogge said: "There should be no anxiety. The process will be a totally fair process. Reading the [IOC programme commission] report, I have only one conclusion. We have very strong federations, and strong federations should have nothing to fear."
  • The press reported: Olympics chief reassures federations that sports won't go

In September, Rogge commented on the recent elimination of softball from the 2012 Olympic programme:

  • Rogge said: "Our charter is very clear that the [executive board] cannot take an initiative to say 'we want a new vote' because that would open up the door to all kinds of re-votes." But he said there were precedents for the full IOC to reconsider a decision.
  • The press reported: A second chance? IOC may take another look at softball for 2012 Games

And last week, Rogge paid a visit to China's National Games:

  • Rogge said: "There will be a wushu competition during the Olympic Games. It's not going to be one of the official 28 sports but we will organize with BOCOG a wushu competition."
  • The press reported: Wushu to Be Part of Beijing Olympics

The Chinese have been trying to get Wushu — better-known as kung fu in North America — on the Olympic programme ever since they won the right to host the 2008 Olympics. As I understand it, the proposed Olympic version is not a combat sport but a judged demonstration of skill, somewhat like gymnastics — just what the summer Olympics needs, right? Anyway, despite the recent excitement I can assure everybody that wushu is not going to be part of the 2008 summer Olympics. It is not one of the 28 sports on the programme, and it cannot be a demonstration sport, since the IOC decided in 1989 to place a moratorium on demonstration sports at the summer and winter Olympics (they were discontinued starting in 1996).

In an effort to make things perfectly clear, Rogge made a statement clarifying what he said, for those who missed it the first time:

"We are not introducing wushu into the Olympic program. It will not be an exhibition. Not at all" … He said wushu will be neither an exhibition event nor an Olympic sport. Asked if there is any possibility of wushu’s becoming a medal event in future Olympic Games beyond 2012, Rogge said: “No one can predict the future.”

Tomorrow's headline: Rogge Promises Wushu in Future Olympic Games.

October 14, 2005

Getting the Drugs Out of My System

I've been doing a lot of writing about drugs, and especially steroids, lately; not only here, but over at SportsFilter, too, where I can't seem to talk about anything else. I have to stop, or soon everybody will hate me.

The most recent positive test has hit a little bit closer to home than most, and left me somewhat depressed. But aside from that, I have been collecting some news stories that I wanted to pass along. I'm going to use this post to collect some of these disjointed ideas, and then leave the topic of steroids alone for a while. (I do want to write something about Gene Doping, but that's really a different subject.)

Never Enough?

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran a four-part series about anabolic steroids last week. The series was titled "Never Enough: Steroids in Sports" and covered the history of steroid use in amateur and professional sports.

I found parts one and two particularly interesting, as they covered the early history of steroid use among US weightlifters, and early regulation efforts and failures. Here are the links to parts three and four.

Need a Boost?

The Seattle Times has been running their own series on performance enhancement in sports, called "Getting a Boost." The series is in three parts, and there are also a number of supplemental articles. Some of the articles cover very well-worn ground (the dangers of supplements, the uncertainty in EPO test results), but the coverage is very broad and they've made room for some unusual perspectives. Take a look at this piece about Dr. Norman Frost, who questions whether anabolic steroids have any negative health effects, and this one, about the increase in steroid use among female athletes.

Erasing the GDR?

German track and field authorities have announced that they are going to review the validity of their national records — at least, those records that are still held by the German Democratic Republic. The investigation was apparently prompted by a request from one of the East German record-holders, who feels that the East German doping program renders her performances invalid.

Drug Pacifists?

World-class athletes from different sports and different eras, Bode Miller and Eddie Merckx have both spoken out against the current zero-tolerance policy on performance-enhancing drugs. Miller, an alpine ski star from the US, expressed support for legalizing EPO:

I'm surprised it's illegal, because in our sport, it would be pretty minimal health risks, and it would actually make it safer for the athletes …

You can follow the link to see Miller's logic on the last point, but he seems to suffer from the (common) misconception that drugs are banned because they are harmful to athletes. It's clear to me that substances are banned only when they are unfairly performance-enhancing — perhaps a subject for another day.

Taming the Italians?

IOC president Jacques Rogge (and WADA president Dick Pound) will ask Italian officials to make an exception to their tough anti-doping laws during the 2006 winter Olympics. Under Italian law, athletes caught in possession of performance-enhancing drugs could face criminal charges.

I'm not sure how I feel about this. On the one hand, athletes should obey the laws of the countries that they visit, and face the consequences if they don't. I don't see any reason that they should have special immunity from the law. On the other hand, I don't see that aggressive criminal prosecution of visiting athletes is really to anybody's benefit. My prediction is that Rogge will get what he wants.

New and Better Steroid Test?

Details are pretty sketchy, but Reuters reported on Wednesday that British scientists have come up with a new and better steroid test:

Thanks to our technique, in the future it will be much more difficult to escape detection when using performance-enhancing steroids.

I can unequivocally say that I'm all for that.


I knew I had forgotten one; for the medical specialists in the crowd, here's a review article I came across titled, Cardiovascular Toxicities of Performance-Enhancing Substances in Sports.

October 11, 2005

You Can't Practice (It's the Law!)

Is this for real? This report out of the UK is speculating that Britain's gun control laws might be relaxed just a little bit prior to the 2012 Olympics. Apparently, under current UK law, handguns are outlawed in Britain, even for licensed sport shooting. That means that would-be Olympic pistol shooters have to train in Switzerland.

Baseball's Reinstatement Plan

After months of silence, the International Baseball Federation has outlined its plan for getting back on the Olympic programme. It sounds an awful lot like softball's plan, actually, with a few key differences:

  • Softball was eliminated by one vote. Baseball was cut 54-50, which means that they have to convince three delegates to flip.
  • Nobody's claiming that delegates voted against baseball because they were confused.
  • The USOC, which is putting all of its weight behind softball's reinstatement, will definitely not be making the case for baseball.

October 07, 2005

Performance Legacy Due to Olympic Hosting: Follow-Up

A little more than three months ago I posted an analysis of the benefits of hosting the Olympic games. I don't mean the hypothetical economic benefits of hosting; my analysis considered Olympic performance, and whether hosting an Olympic games (summer or winter) has a positive impact on a nation's performance in subsequent Olympic games.

My hypothesis was that hosting, by generating revenue for the NOC, and by spurring government investment in sport facilities, would have a positive impact on performance as measured by medal fraction (medals won, as a percentage of the total number of available medals). To go even further, I proposed that the benefits from hosting either a summer or a winter Olympics would cross over to both. That is, we could speculate that Canada's summer Olympic team (for example) will receive a performance boost from the 2010 winter Olympics, to be held in Vancouver.

Unfortunately my study, which included all summer and winter Olympic games since 1948, did not support my hypothesis. Although the host nation receives a large performance benefit in the hosted Olympics, there does not appear to be a significant long-term effect.

An anonymous commenter suggested that I might be able to rescue my hypothesis if I considered the post-1984 era as distinct from the pre-1984 era. In the comments I proposed to investigate in the "next couple of weeks," which was apparently a bit optimistic. But, better late than never!

Figure 1

Host country Olympic performance, 1984-2004

Figure 1 — The effect of Olympic hosting on summer Olympic performance, 1984-2004 (click to enlarge).

Figure 1 (inset) shows the post-1984 group of host countries. The figure is basically the same format I used last time, except this time I've shown a line for each individual country. Each curve is displaced in time, so that year zero is the hosting year, and also normalized so that medal performance is on a more or less equal footing. In particular I attempted to make the scores about equal to 100% at -4 years, although I had to do some magic with some of them because I couldn't include 1980 and 1984 in the analysis.

Another change compared to last time is that I have shown both summer hosts and winter hosts on the same plot. To be clear, the vertical axis is always summer Olympic performance; I am attempting to see if there is a noticeable impact of winter hosting on summer performance.

I've divided the group of 11 hosts (from the 1984 summer Olympics through the 2004 summer Olympics) into three groups:

  • The black curves show the USA, which has been host three times (1984, 1996, and 2002). In general, the USA behaves like a non-host country (see previous analysis); there is no discernable performance improvement when they are the host nation, even in the host year. I would hypothesize that the Americans are already so dominant, have so many resources, and have hosted so often that very little benefit remains to be gained.
  • The red curves represent the (non-US) summer Olympic hosts, Korea, Spain, Australia, and Greece. Based on this small number of examples, there is indeed a noticeable improvement in summer Olympic performance in the years leading up to a hosted summer games, and that improvement is maintained in the 16 years following.
  • The blue curves represent the (non-US) winter Olympic hosts, Canada, France, Norway, and Japan. As you might expect, there is no significant "host year" effect that boosts performance in year zero. (Presumably the host effect is due to some kind of "home field advantage.") However, based again on a small number of examples, it appears that the winter hosts do show a small boost in summer performance compared to non-host nations. That is, the blue curves for years 0 and later are mostly above the 100% line, whereas you will recall that non-host nations show a steady decline in their score with time.

It is also interesting to note that the winter host that shows the smallest post-host benefit is Norway, a nation that is already a power in the winter Olympics. Similarly the non-US summer host with the smallest improvement is Australia, a summer Olympic overachiever. These observations (together with the USA results) suggest that Olympic hosting is of greatest benefit to countries that are not already strong performers.

Of course this is all based on a very small sample, so we shouldn't draw too much from it, but let's go ahead and do it anyway. If Canada is anything like the past four winter Olympic hosts, we might see summer Olympic medal fraction increase by something like 50% in the 2012 games, which is pretty exciting (to me). On the other hand, this is Canada's second kick at the can since 1984, which might put us more in the USA group. I suppose that time will tell.

October 06, 2005

My Two Favourite Sports

Well to be honest, I'm not that fond of boxing or softball, but they seem to come up quite often. I guess I write about boxing a lot because it's so screwed up, and of course softball is not on the Olympic program for 2012.

And here they are in the news, again. Don Porter, the head of the International Softball Federation, led a delegation to Switzerland this week to meet with IOC president Jacques Rogge. Apparently the purpose of the meeting was to get Rogge's support for softball's reinstatement, although Rogge has already made it clear that the decision rests with the IOC members. Rogge reiterated that point this week:

Under IOC rules, at least one-third of the 115 members would need to submit a motion [at the February meeting in Turin] to consider a new vote. If the motion passed, softball would require a majority in favor to win reinstatement.

That looks fair to me; and given that softball was eliminated in a very close vote, I don't see why it would be difficult to at least get the motion brought forward from the floor.

Boxing, meanwhile, is still thinking about adding a women's discipline. I guess that's good news if you believe in equal punching opportunities for women.

Keep Trying, Guys

How backwards is the AIBA? First, the home page still lists the notice of the cancellation of the women's world championships on September 5, right alongside the results … of the women's world championships on September 26-29. Guys, either get the cancellation notice off of there, or explain how the event was rescued.

And here's a telling quote from their home page promoting this great event: "In women's boxing, we can see some nations winning bouts that would, in men boxing, never win!" How fabulous!

There were a couple of articles on this issue in the past week. The People's Daily Online are reporting that the IOC executive will make a decision on the inclusion of women's boxing in the 2008 Olympics at their meeting on October 26-28.

The article claims that the IOC have received a proposal from the AIBA, with no description of what was proposed. Now Rogge has already made it pretty clear that he's not interested in adding women's events unless some men's weight classes are consolidated, and the AIBA has not been supportive of that idea. So I'm sticking to my story that this is mostly just for show, probably so that the AIBA can shift the blame to the IOC. I suspect that the boxing officials have submitted a proposal that they already know is going to be quickly rejected. In truth, the IOC really can't just let boxing increase their medal or athlete quotas, since they forced other sports (like wrestling and weightlifting) to remove some men's events when they added women's events.

Then, there was this odd little story in the Globe and Mail. The story starts off typically enough, describing how Canada's top female boxers really want to have a chance to compete at the Olympics. But then Robert Crête, executive director of Boxing Canada, drops a new idea:

… Canada would be willing to look at the possibility of women's boxing being part of the Winter Olympics. We're asking the international federation to look at all avenues of getting women's boxing into the Games.

It's an interesting idea, but probably destined to fail because of the giant can of worms it would open. The AIBA will probably embrace the idea, since it would allow them to make a token gesture for women without diminishing the men's program. The IOC, I suspect, is unlikely to entertain this; if they say yes to boxing, they'll have the wrestlers and weightlifters on their backs asking for the same arrangement.

October 05, 2005

Medal Predictions Part II — The Per-Capita Olympics

Hmmm, well, somebody's asking for the story about medals-per-capita. Here it is, but remember, you asked for it!

In early August, 1991, I was in Havana — I don't recommend that, by the way, Havana in August — for the Pan American Games, which had really just begun but were already over for me (aside from a few consumable souvenirs and an impending stomach ailment), and I was watching television in the common room of our cinder block dormitory in the sweltering and barely completed athletes' village — while keeping one eye on the stairway in case Annie Pelletier walked past — watching television in Spanish, and muddling through because I had taken two semesters at SFU, and also because I had spent the previous four days attempting to hold a conversation with our interpreter, Rosa, and on the news I saw that the Pan American Games were magnificent, the Cuban team was unstoppable, and the Great Leader (who I had shaken hands with, incidentally) was omnipresent, and when the anchor discussed the early medal standings he had a bar chart in the graphic over his left shoulder, and he said excitedly that "Cuba holds a slight lead over los Estados Unidos" — as I said, it was early days, and Cuba had cleaned up in canoe/kayak — "with Canada a distant third," and I thought that it was nice that the home team got to be in the lead for a couple of days, but then he raised his voice almost to a shout, "pero if we consider the number of medals per million inhabitants," and the bar graph changed to show Cuba like an enormous phallus towering over second-place Canada and third-place USA, cringing in the shadow of the superpotencia cubano, and I had to admire that, making up their own scoring system for the glory of Cuba and (more importantly) making the United States of America look like a whipped dog.

The medals-per-capita argument was not invented by the Cubans, of course, and it is actually fairly popular; I have seen Canadians use it during the Olympics — here is a great example, with a table, that shows that Tonga won the 1996 per-capita Olympics, and here's another and another that popped up in 2004 — and recently my local paper carried an article purporting to show that Nova Scotia really "won" the Canada Games based on a per-capita medal table.

Any time that you reach the conclusion that Tonga is the world's leading Olympic performer, followed by The Bahamas, and that the US is only forty-first, you might want to sit back and think a little bit about your methodology. In this case, you're assuming that the expected number of medals won should (in some ideal world) scale linearly with population. (It's a bit worse than that, even; you are assuming that the expected number of medals is directly proportional to the population, but never mind.)

So why shouldn't the medal total scale linearly with population? Here are three reasons that I can think of.

  • Olympic representation isn't proportional to population. If it was, then one Tongan athlete (pop. ~100,000) would be matched by 3,000 US athletes (pop. ~300,000,000).
  • The supply of medals is finite. For the US to match Tonga on a per-capita basis (10 medals per million inhabitants in 1996) they would have to bring home 3,000 medals, which is more than the total number of medals awarded.
  • Medals are extremely scarce. Medals are awarded only for the top three finishers. Even if your country boasts the top 50 performers in the world in any event, you can still only get three medals at most. In some events you can only get one, no matter how deep your talent pool may be.

All of this suggests that there should be a law of diminishing returns; that is, that doubling your population should not lead to a doubling in Olympic medals, and in fact the larger your population is, the more you have to increase it for the same marginal benefit.

Figure 1

Summer Olympic medals (1996-2004) versus population

Figure 1 — Summer Olympic medals (1996-2004) versus population, in three different presentations (click to enlarge).

If you really must model Olympic performance with a single-parameter model, and if population has to be the single parameter, then you probably can't do much better than to assume a power law dependence. It still doesn't predict medal performance very well, mind you, but it's better than all of the alternatives. You can see what I mean in Figure 1 (inset). That plot shows the average number of summer Olympic medals won from 1996 through 2004 versus population. The details of the calculation are in the full caption for the enlarged figure, but here's the important point: a linear dependence is a terrible fit to the data, a logarithmic dependence is somewhat better, and a log-log (power law) dependence looks like something vaguely approximating a straight line. The "power" in the best power law fit turns out to be almost exactly 1/3, which is to say that the number of medals won is roughly proportional to the cube root of the population. If you want to double the number of medals you win at the summer Olympics, you need to increase your population by a factor of 8 (presumably without diminishing your per-capita resources, too). If you want to increase your medal total by 10%, then your population has to go up by a third.

I'm sure that my anonymous commenter is, by this point, regretting that s/he brought this up, but I might as well finish my thought here. Let's use this model to normalize the number of medals by population. We can look at recent history and see if my approach gives us anything more sensible than the per-capita analysis. We can compare nations on a population-corrected basis by dividing the number of medals won by the cube root of the population. Table 1 shows the resulting top 25, again using the average medal totals in 1996, 2000, and 2004 to construct the score. The scores are scaled by 100 just so that they look a bit nicer.

Table 1 — Top 25 Summer Olympic nations, 1996-2004, by population-corrected medal score.
CountryTotal MedalsPopulation (millions)(Medals/3)/Pop.1/3 ×100
Australia 148 19.9 18.3
Russia 243 144.0 15.6
United States 301 293.0 15.2
Germany 169 82.4 13.0
Cuba 81 11.3 12.1
France 108 60.4 9.2
Italy 101 58.1 8.7
Netherlands 66 16.3 8.7
Hungary 55 10.0 8.5
South Korea 85 48.2 7.8
Romania 64 22.4 7.6
Belarus 47 10.3 7.2
Bulgaria 40 7.5 6.8
Ukraine 69 47.7 6.4
United Kingdom 73 60.3 6.2
Greece 37 10.6 5.6
China 172 1298.8 5.3
Canada 48 32.5 5.0
Norway 23 4.6 4.6
Japan 69 127.3 4.6
Spain 47 40.3 4.6
Sweden 27 9.0 4.4
Jamaica 18 2.7 4.3
Czech Republic 27 10.2 4.2
Poland 41 38.6 4.1

That's a fairly sensible list, it seems to me; there are no outrageous surprises here. The large-population Olympic powers — USA, Russia, China and Japan — all remain in the top 25. The small-population overachievers — Cuba, Hungary and others — are in the top 25, too. Two countries that come out on top in the per-capita analysis, The Bahamas and New Zealand, end up 31st and 29th, respectively, which seems reasonable. Tonga finished 61st in the three-games average, but would have cracked the top 40 in 1996 when they won their only medal.

I've glossed over a lot here, and I won't claim that this the world's best predictive model for Olympic performance by population. But as an assessment of how well a country does for its size, it's a lot more reasonable than the per-capita method, and it isn't much more difficult to calculate. On top of that, it still makes Cuba look pretty darn good. And I think Rosa would like that.

October 01, 2005

Not-So-United Kingdom

As host nation for the 2012 summer Olympics, Great Britain has an automatic spot in all of the team sport tournaments. You might expect that soccer, in particular, would be a medal hope for the UK. You'd be wrong, though — Great Britain has not even entered the Olympic tournament since 1972.

UK at the Olympics

Great Britain last competed in the Olympic soccer tournament in 1972. In 1974 the English FA abolished the formal distinction between professional and amateur soccer players. This left all English players ineligible for the Olympics, which were then only open to amateurs.

In more recent times, the various national associations have been reluctant to field a Great Britain team at the Olympics because they were nervous for their independent status within FIFA, and specifically for the World Cup.

Britain's Olympic History - The FA

The major stumbling block is that while the Olympic team competes under the British flag, England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland are fiercely separate entities in soccer.

A few weeks ago FIFA president Sepp Blatter stated that Great Britain would field men's and women's soccer teams for the 2012 Olympic Games. There are some wrinkles to be ironed out, but England coach Sven Goran Eriksson and other English soccer officials are behind the idea, and it looks ready to go ahead.

Somebody forgot to send the Scots the memo, though; now Scottish fans want their own Olympic team for 2012. Not just for soccer, mind you, but for everything — and they think they've found a loophole. The Olympic Charter states:

Although most national Olympic committees are from nations, the IOC also recognises independent territories, commonwealths, protectorates and geographical areas.

They're right, of course; Puerto Rico, for example, sends its own team, and there have been numerous other examples of "geographical areas" like the so-called Unified Team in the 1992 games.

And of course, if it's a good idea for Scotland, it must be a good idea for Wales, too. Watch for Northern Ireland's petition in the next few days.

Incidentally, the Welsh article references one of the world's most abused performance measures, the medals-per-capita scoring system:

For a small nation [Wales] have always punched above our weight at international competitions - achieving greater success per head of population than any other country in the UK at Manchester's 2002 Commonwealth Games.

That reminds me of a story, and of course begs a few good charts, but that will have to wait for another day.