Monday, February 22, 2010

Winter Olympics as a Reflection of GDP

A perusal of the final medal count of this month's Winter Olympics looks a bit fishy. These podium-hogging nations seem to have something in common.

Why is it that the world's wealthiest countries dominate the Winter Olympics? Why does the medal total for events like luge and ice dancing so closely resemble this list?

The Olympics purport to host a contest for amateur athletes. In reality, producing elite athletes requires a substantial corporatist investment. Promising children must be culled from the hinterlands and isolated in frosty, impersonal training academies. There's plenty of snow in Chile, but that nation lacks the capital and social structure to give potential champions the means to refine their talents.

But money alone does not explain why Saudi Arabia and Brazil do not yet produce top skiers. Sure, there are factors like geography and custom. But to grasp the link between wealth and winter sports, you need to take into account just why homo sapiens decided to go out there in the snow, exerting himself.

Man's conquest over winter could not have taken place without the search for fuel that obsesses the global North. In the cold, rich countries, to survive means constantly hustling, gathering firewood, scavenging, accumulating resources at all costs.

Our sporting triumph is a highly technocratic one, involving advances in speed-skate design and skintight outerwear. In ageless competitions like running, the playing field is truly level, and underdeveloped economies like Jamaica and Kenya dominate.

Braving cold temperatures and the accretion of wealth are and forever will be intertwined. Perhaps an indicator of real national athletic achievement should account for the tremendous economic gap between competing nations. This formula divides the number of medals by trillions in GDP per capita (2009, according to the International Monetary Fund).

1) Slovenia: 65.79 medals per trillion dollars
2) Latvia: 58.65 mpt
3) Norway: 51.11 mpt
4) Belarus: 49.83 mpt
5) Estonia: 43.10 mpt
6) Croatia: 42.86 mpt
7) Austria 39.02 mpt
8) Slovakia 33.33 mpt
9) Czech Republic 27.27 mpt
10) Sweden 22.92 mpt
11) Finland 18.52 mpt
12) Switzerland 18 mpt
13) Canada 17.33 mpt
14) Korea 15.22 mpt
15) Poland 11.32 mpt
16) Netherlands 9.09 mpt
17) Russia 8.93 mpt
18) Germany 8.17 mpt
19) Kazakhstan 7.69 mpt
20) France 3.83 mpt
21) Australia: 2.97 mpt
22) United States: 2.57 mpt
23) China: 2.54 mpt
24) Italy: 2.17 mpt
25) Japan: 1.02 mpt
26) Great Britain 0.37 mpt

Of course many participating countries did not medal. Still, it's remarkable that the UK spent 2.6 trillion dollars for one lousy gold (Amy Williams in women's skeleton). It's also illuminating to note that China and America have near identical ratios--another indicator of the unification of Chimerica. Finally, it will be intriguing to see if the former Eastern bloc countries can continue their overachievement in winter sports as their economies grow.

For a hockey roundup, check out N+1.