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Better economy, more Olympic gold

August 16, 2012

It was not the hapless performance of the hockey team against Australia that should ring any alarm bells or the fact that Pakistan's contingent returned empty-handed from London. -Photo by Reuters

Long before mere mortals competed for the highest prize in track and field, it is said that the Greek gods competed in games amongst themselves to impose physical superiority on one another. In the honour of the gods, the tradition was later continued by the flourishing Greek human civilisation who participated in the Ancient Olympic Games apparently for over the next 1200 years (8th Century BC to 4th Century AD).

Whether the great God Zeus actually attended any of the games or his son Herakles won any medals is entwined in myth as much as their very existence. However, what it is forever etched in history books are the Greek civilisation’s cultural, philosophical, architectural and scientific achievements. The thriving economy of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Pythagoras and Sophocles, to name a few, formed a resplendent social structure with public schools, a peerless army and was light years ahead in science and technology in comparison to other dominions of the time.

It was the 67th Roman Emperor Theodosius-I who made Christianity the official state religion and completely shut down the Olympics, sighting its polytheistic roots.

Soon after, Western Europe, under the flagship of Roman Christians, fell into the Dark Ages which were characterised by a total collapse of economic, cultural and social order. The west was to remain under dark shadows for approximately a thousand years before the Italian Renaissance brought back civility into their society. However, it was the Industrial Revolution (1750 – 1850) that transformed Western Europe as the leading socio-economic power of the world again.

Much like everything else, it revived sporting activity as well. Interestingly, Mr. Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the Founder of Modern Olympic Games, held the “Meetings of the Olympian Class” in the summer of 1850 in England, the birth place of the Industrial Revolution. This was his first strife in the long run-up to form the International Olympics Committee in 1894 which runs the Games to-date.

Did the cycle of socio-economic welfare that followed the Industrial Revolution strongly influence sport or was the timing of the Ancient Olympics and its modern resurgence coincidental?

The 2012 Olympics opening ceremony was an extravagant affair in the ‘Kingdom’, from the Queen’s arrival with James Bond to the showcase of its rich history where once the sun never set. However, it is the “spirit” of the Olympic Games which burnt the torch brighter than ever. 204 countries were represented by over 10,000 participants spread across 302 events within 26 sporting disciplines.

While the desire to win is inherent in sport, the Olympics traditionally were always about more than just a gold medal. It’s been a stage of opportunity, honour and identity and best explained by its founder Baron Pierre de Coubertin: “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well."

Football and tennis are sports in which winning medals was not given too much importance until recently. While the increasing importance of medals cannot be undermined, here is a look at countries with maximum participation in true Olympic spirit.

Country

Participants

UK

556

US

531

Russia

435

Australia

413

Germany

395

China

370

France

335

Japan

303

Spain

289

Italy

282

Canada

279

Brazil

266

At first glance the most striking fact is its resemblance to the G8 summit which was formed by the so called super powers of the world. All eight countries feature in the top 12 with the highest number of qualified participants.

To further test this hypothesis here is a look at the top economies of the world according to the figures published by the IMF (International Monetary Fund) in 2011.

Countries GDP in Millions ($)

1

 United States

15,094,025

2

 China

7298147

3

 Japan

5,869,471

4

 Germany

3,577,031

5

 France

2,776,324

6

 Brazil

2,492,908

7

 United Kingdom

2,417,570

8

 Italy

2,198,730

9

 Russia

1,850,401

10

 Canada

1,736,869

11

 India

1,676,143

12

 Spain

1,493,513

13

 Australia

1,488,221

Astonishingly, the top 13 economies in the world consist of the top 12 participating countries in the Olympics this year, India being the only exception. These 13 countries which behold 70 per cent of the world economy also monopolise the oldest and most widely participated sporting event in the world, the Summer Olympics.

It is not the populous of a country which determines how many of them are capable or skilled enough to compete in sports as much as the economy they are nourished under. The socio-economic welfare influences how well their talent is cultivated and the results they produce.

Sporting and economic giants like Australia don’t feature in the top 50 most populated countries of the world whereas populated countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Nigeria are not in the top 50 most represented countries at the Olympics.

The chart plots the top 50 participating countries at the Olympics in respect with their GDP (Gross Domestic Product). The correlation between nominal GDP and participating countries happens to be a steep one.

The numbers look good but can often be misleading and seldom reveal the entire truth. There are enough nations in this world who raise their hand and be counted way more than their treasury allows them to. Countries like Belarus and Tunisia display the tendency to punch above their weight. The entire Eastern European belt with Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bulgaria and Lithuania fall in the top quarter of the list of countries represented at the Olympics but do not feature in the top half of the economies of the world.

Furthermore countries which have the highest representation in ratio of their population at the Olympics this year are feather weights in the economic world.

Participants per 100,000 people:

1

Cook Islands

40

2

Palau

24

3

Nauru

19

4

Monaco

18

5

Saint Kitts and Nevis

13

6

San Marino

13

7

Bermuda

12

8

Grenada

10

9

Cayman Islands

9

10

British Virgin Islands

8

11

Iceland

8

12

Liechtenstein

8

13

Bahamas

7

14

American Samoa

7

15

Seychelles

7

16

Andorra

7

17

Virgin Islands

6

18

Antigua and Barbuda

6

19

Montenegro

5

20

Micronesia

5

The fact that all these countries are able to compete on the world stage and make their presence felt is evidence enough that even if economics is the engine inside a sports vehicle there are other elements that are its driving force.

Physical attributes and social structures are very important in producing a sporting nation. Some countries are blessed with genetically better athletes. Jamaica and Usain Bolt are perfect examples of this. It is no surprise that almost all previous record holders for a sprint have been from the Afro-American race. They have also dominated other track and field events for obvious reasons. They are naturally gifted athletes.

While the ex Soviet block is just born to play hard, countries like New Zealand, Australia and South Africa have a culture in sync with sports. A large proportion of their populous are athletic. In fact, a lot of sports they play do not feature in the Olympics, thus giving a sense of their under representation.

As the Olympics came to a close all that seemed to matter was the medal count while the spirit of participation and combat seemed to be lost in the voracity of victory and sometimes worse in dissoluteness of the Olympians. Ironically though, it is the fulfilment of a win that drives all great sportsmen, deep inside every athlete knows that the end goal is to come first.

In the words of the legendary late Formula One driver Aryton Senna, “Winning is the most important. Everything is consequence of that.”

In London, most medals were bagged by more or less the same group of countries who had the most participants. It is a numbers game, a little skewed by exceptional performances, and the difference between individual and team sports and thus the respective medal counts.

Pakistan, as expected, finished without a medal again this year. It marked the 20th anniversary of its last medal, won in 1992 at the Games in Barcelona, a modest bronze in hockey. Two years later, Pakistan also became world champions for a record fourth but last time in its glorious history. It was the same period Pakistan won the cricket World cup and ruled the roost in squash for the last time. Pakistan’s socio-economic decline in the last two decades is no secret.

The nation’s most successful Olympics were in Rome in 1960, winning two medals including gold. Incidentally, the 1960s are viewed by many as the golden era in Pakistan’s history when it was looked upon as a fast growing economy with booming industries and PIA (Pakistan International Airlines) firing on all cylinders around the globe.

Great sportsmen are not born over night but are trained over time. Almost all great sportsmen pick up their respective sport and show exceptional talent at a very young age. From early childhood they are nurtured to become the stars of their trade. How well a 10 year old talent is nurtured today is how well he will perform 15 years later at 25.

Last of the great Pakistani sportsmen seen in the 90s were mostly born in the 60s or mid 70s. The two Ws of cricket, the two Khans of squash and the glorious hockey team of the early 90s were all products of the confident Pakistani nation that was giving birth to men who felt it was their right to compete with the world on an even keel.

It was not the hapless performance of the hockey team against Australia that should ring any alarm bells or the fact that Pakistan's contingent returned empty-handed from London.

It was the opening ceremony which gave a feeling of dejection and indisposition.

The 23 Olympians who marched out on the opening day lacked the zest and enthusiasm which on an occasion like this is fuelled by its own frenzy, national pride and most importantly self-belief of achieving glory. Sadly, their smiles had gone missing.

The contingent was led by the only surviving hockey legend of Pakistan, record holding goal-scorer Sohail Abbas. He was previously called out of retirement and recently made captain due to lack of options. Not surprisingly, the biggest factor contributing to the decline of hockey has been the financial decline in the sport.

Abbas was born two years before the military coup that over threw Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s elected government in 1975. General Zia-ul-Haq forcefully took power and by some accounts Pakistan was never the same again.

Zia reinvented Pakistan into a staunch Islamic state parable to the Christian state of Theodosius-I. The effects of religious fanaticism might not immediately be evident but are uncovered over time and in today’s day and age a lot faster than it did a few thousand years ago.

It is normally counterproductive to paint a doomsday scenario but hiding under an umbrella will not scatter the clouds that rain over Pakistan. It is not the current condition of the country that is as worrying as much as the foreseeable future is, scary to think it could get worse.

Neighbouring India has significantly progressed economically and consequently in art, architecture and sports. India was medal-less in 1992 but has progressed, taking its count from three to six medals from 2008 to 2012 making it their best performance to date. Though it is far from achieving its potential given the size of its economy and population they are on the right track and the increase in their medals honour list looks inevitable.

However, Pakistan can take heart from Olympians such as Anum Bandey. One of the two participating Pakistani women who to the casual observe was knocked out in her preliminary heat and came last out of the four competitors in her event.  To the keen observer, though, she rose to the occasion and smashed the national swimming record for 400m, showing great heart and courage. She was undeterred by the enormity of the occasion that could have easily drowned the 15-year-old.

Pakistan is a resolute nation where people are familiar with fighting adversity on a daily basis. The good news is that in today’s dynamic world things can change very fast and if foundations are rebuilt a country can turn around within the space of one generation.  With 175 million people, Pakistan has plenty of potential to once again become a power to reckon with or at least be noticed and respected.

Pakistan has to tackle its socio-economic quandaries first; the Olympic and other sporting woes will most likely heal as a by product.

The age-old argument of nature versus nurture often ends up in the same culmination. One without the other cannot achieve greatness. Talent needs to be nourished but nourishment alone cannot create talent. If a country does well economically, ceteris paribus it is bound to improve its performance in sports.

All that glitters might not be gold but if one is able to gather enough ‘glitter’, it definitely increases the chances of getting some gold.

The writer grew up in a home with sports as its religion and “The Cricketer” subscription of black and white pages as holy script. He resides in Istanbul and can be reached here.