After 16 days of intense competition, the 2004 Olympic games came to an end. Taiwan's record of two gold and two silver medals and one bronze medal is not only a considerable improvement on its achievement at the Sydney games in 2000 of one silver and four bronze, It also placed Taiwan 31st in the medal tally, out of a total of 202 countries competing in the games. This unprecedented record delighted the nation, and has had a positive impact in promoting sport in Taiwan. We can expect greater participation in future international sports events. But with a population of over 23 million and a standard of living well up in the international rankings, was our performance at Athens really that outstanding? Or had our performance in previous Olympics simply been below par? Now that the excitement of victory has begun to die down, this makes an interesting question for consideration.
In the February issue of the Review of Economics and Statistics, an article by Andrew Bernard and Meghan Busse entitled "Who Wins the Olympic Games: Economic Resources and Medal Totals" outlines a model they created to predict the number of medals a country would win at an Olympic Games. Athletes and events do not figure among the variables. Instead, the variables are a nation's GDP, its population, the number of medals previously won, whether the country is or was ruled by a communist government and whether or not it was the host country, covering a period of the last 30 years. Using this model, the authors said they achieved 96 percent accuracy in predicting the medal tally at the Sydney Games in 2000 for countries that won more than five medals in the previous Atlanta games. Before the beginning of the Athens games, the authors also made predictions using this model for the number of gold medals and the total medal count for 34 counties.
Although accuracy was not as high as for the Sydney games, the margin of error for the top 10 medal winners for total medal count was just 12 percent; for gold medals, the error margin was just two medals. This indicates that a simple economic model can achieve a high degree of predictive accuracy.
In Athens, Taiwan won two gold medals, ranking 31st. With a total of five medals won, the country ranked 37th, giving it an average position of 34th. Because we did not win five medals in Sydney, perhaps the predictive model does not apply to Taiwan. But we can still borrow some of the variables to make a simple test to see how outstanding Taiwan's performance actually was.
Firstly in reference to population: Taiwan's population of around 22.5 million ranks it 45th in the world, so as far as our population size is concerned, we punched above our weight at Athens. But when we turn to per capita income, if we take GDP adjusted for purchasing power parity as assessed in the CIA's World Factbook 2004, Taiwan's per capita GDP for last year was US$23,400, which ranks it 25th in the world. In this light, the Olympic rank of 34th does not seem so impressive. And if we look at total GDP adjusted for purchasing power parity, our economy is valued at US$530 billion, which ranks 16th in the world. In this context, 34th in the Olympics seems even less impressive.
It is especially worthwhile to note the example of Australia. It has a population of 19 million with an adjusted average GDP of US$25,000 and the scale of its economy is actually smaller than Taiwan's (US$480 billion). Yet it ranked fourth on the medal charts (with a total of 49, 17 of those being gold), leaving countries like Britain and France in its wake. Australia's geographic and demographic profile is probably not sufficient to explain its dominance compared to Taiwan, for South Korea, which is densely populated but with an average per capita income that is lower than Taiwan's managed to rank ninth at Athens (30 medals, nine of them gold), far exceeding what could be expected from its economic profile. This is truly admirable.
But the greatest winner at the Athens Olympics was probably Japan, which ranked fifth, winning 37 medals, 16 of them gold. This was a huge leap forward from its performance in Sydney, where it garnered just 18 medals, only five of them gold. We can see from this that apart from economic development, enthusiasm for sport and a nation's support for its athletes, determination and hard training are also necessary to achieve a good Olympic record. So while the performance of our athletes merits praise, based on our economic strength we still have plenty of room to improve. In a world in which Taiwan suffers political oppression, sports opens a new window for friendship and self-improvement.
To develop an enthusiasm for sport and to create a nursery for the fostering of sporting talent, physical education should be included within the joint entrance examination to test students on basic athletic ability, such as running, jumping, chin-ups and sit-ups. By adopting a system of "national fitness," young people will train regularly to obtain good results. If university departments demand a passing grade in physical education for admission, Taiwan's "little fatties" will gradually disappear and people will not only be stronger and fitter, but we will also have a steady supply of internationally competitive athletes. These athletes will not only have broader horizons, but we can also expect better performances at subsequent Olympics.
Tu Jenn-hwa is an associate professor at National Taiwan University's Graduate Institute of National Development.
Translated by Ian Bartholomew
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