I’d like to begin by making it clear, I do not believe that one sport is harder to do and train for than another. Nor is it my intention to minimize anyone’s hard earned gold medal. Rather the purpose of this blog is to consider the factors which influence the achievement of that elusive gold medal. I understand this is a controversial topic. Perhaps you’ll agree or disagree with me, but if you’re at all considering the points raised, then I’ve succeeded in this blog’s objective.
Have you ever wondered why certain countries seem to dominate the medal count when it comes to the Olympic Games? True a country’s population may play a role, but did you know the single most predictive factor of a country’s medal count at the Olympic Games is Gross Domestic Product (GDP). GDP per capita is indicative of a country’s living standards. One might assume a greater GDP allows a country to provide the facilities, coaches and infrastructure to develop various sporting opportunities, thereby giving way to greater performance results.
And what about the likeliness for an athlete to be successful in a given sport? Similar to GDP, turns out there is another monumental factor at play – depth of competition. By this I mean, how many people in the world participate in a given sport. For example, if one is competing in a sport that involves only 10 nations, versus a sport which involves 220 nations one’s likeliness for medalling is greater in the sport with 10 nations.
Mitchell and Stewart (2007) have proposed a Competitive Index for International Sport, by evaluating the characteristics associated with sporting success and the participating countries for the various sports. They determined that it was possible to rate the competitive quality of a given sport and the chances for success, whereby the lower the competitive index score the greater chance an individual stood to be successful at the Olympic Games.
For example, the International Ice Hockey Federation has 70 member nations, which is pretty remarkable and competitive, and for that reason you can understand why winning the World Cup in hockey is a big deal to Canadians. However, consider the International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF) which has 212 member nations, and with the allowance of 3 athletes per country to compete in a given event at the Olympic Games, suddenly the possible depth of competition can be as much as 636 world-class athletes… It’s no wonder why winning the gold medal in the 100m is one of the most coveted medals in the world.
While the size of the competition field is one aspect, another thing to consider is the resources and opportunities at hand. Perhaps the reason why sports like Athletics (Track & Field) and Soccer are the most participated in the world is because there is minimal barrier to do these sports. The cost of equipment/facility is negligible, compared to a sport which may require ice time, sailboat or a horse. Consider the fast paced and exciting game of polo which requires horses to be ridden in 3 minute intervals. As such, each polo player must have at least 8 horses, and each horse can cost you $200,000 plus sheltering, veterinary and travel expenses. It’s not surprising that most of us have never played polo in our lives.
Even amongst elite level athletes, resources play a big role in the success of an athlete and the difference between good and great. As a world-class athlete, I’ve experienced and witnessed the incredible impact support, resources and finance influence performances. It is the difference between eating healthy, receiving necessary therapy, having you’re coach travel with you to competition and not. This can be the difference between a gold medal and a eighth place finish. I’ve witnessed far too many athletes miss out on that podium because they didn’t have the necessary resources.
Outlier The birth-rate effect, described by Maxwell Gladwell in the book “Outlier,” discusses how being born early in the year influences one’s chances of becoming an NHL player. However, researcher Jean Cote (whose works Gladwell cites in his discussion of the birth-rate effect) points out that actually where one is born (birth-place effect) has a greater impact on an athlete’s chances for success (Côté et al., 2006). The reason – resources and opportunity.
We must be exposed or presented with the opportunity, to ever really know what hidden abilities lay within us. I know this fact all too well. Really, if I wasn’t working at McDonald’s that one random day when I was 17 years old and asked, “If I wanted to learn how to high jump?” I would never have become an Olympian. It’s as simple as that. Which often leaves me wondering how many untapped “talents” are out there and never developed?
Going for Gold
The road to the Olympic Games and the podium is a hard one, no matter the sport one comes from, or the resources and opportunity in place. At the end of the day, nothing can replace the passion we as athletes must have to relentlessly pursue excellence, through lactic acid, broken bones and fatigue. It is a fire that must inherently burn to be sustained. Still it is worth contemplating (in the back of your mind) how depth of competition, resources and opportunity, as well as other factors may contribute to the achievement of a gold medal.
Providing food for thought,
Jean Côté, MacDonald, D. J., Baker, J., and Abernethy, B. (2006). When ‘where’ is more important than ‘when’: Birthplace and birthdate effects on the achievement of sporting expertise. Journal of Sports Science, 24, 1065-1073.
Mitchell, H. & Stewart, M. F. (2007) A competitive index for international sport. Applied Economics, 39, 587-603.