UKRAINE JUST HAD ITS WORST SUM­MER OLYMPICS

The Star (St. Lucia) - - COMMENT - By Slawka Ko­valchuk

In any na­tional com­pe­ti­tion, im­mi­grants and nat­u­ral­ized cit­i­zens have a dou­ble amount of vested in­ter­est. In the lat­est Olympics in Rio, I've been root­ing for Team USA. But there was this other team I've been closely watch­ing: the team of my home coun­try Ukraine.

Ukraine en­tered its first Olympic Games as a sep­a­rate Na­tional Olympic Com­mit­tee in 1996 in At­lanta. And ended up in the Top 10, fin­ish­ing 9th and bring­ing home 9 gold medals. A huge suc­cess for a young coun­try that is seek­ing self-iden­tity and recog­ni­tion from the rest of the world.

Ever since then, though, the count of gold medals for Ukraine has been steadily drop­ping.

Syd­ney Olympics 2000 stands out in the gold metal count but then the sil­ver medal count is way up. In most of the sports where they got a sil­ver medal, they also lost the 1st place to ei­ther China or Rus­sia.

While the amount of medals brought back home has been de­clin­ing grad­u­ally, the po­si­tion among other NOCs in the last Olympics has dropped more than two-fold. Not sur­pris­ing though, as with less and less medals, there are more and more coun­tries to fight for rank­ing. It would take Rus­sia 8 more gold medals to get from num­ber 4 to num­ber 3, while it would take only 2 bronze medals (or 1 sil­ver or 1 gold) to get South Africa from 30th place to 29th.

OK, the mes­sage is clear. Ukraine is get­ting worse and worse at Olympics. Now how is that a good thing?

You wouldn't be sur­prised if I told you that statis­ti­cians and data sci­en­tists (i.e. still statis­ti­cians) have been play­ing around with predicting NOCs' medal tal­lies.

Tim Har­ford, one of the econ­o­mists I con­stantly fol­low, had an in­ter­est­ing episode on his More Or Less pod­cast re­cently: Predicting Olympic Medals. In this episode, Tim in­ter­views Dr Ju­lia Bredt­mann, an econ­o­mist at the RWI - Leib­niz In­sti­tute for Eco­nomic Re­search in Essen - and has come up with a pre­dicted medal ta­ble based on sev­eral fac­tors (the list be­low is a copy from a cor­re­spond­ing ar­ti­cle on the topic):

• Wealth. That is, how much a coun­try can in­vest in a Na­tional Olympic Com­mit­tee. Or, how far in the Maslow's pyra­mid are we?

• Pop­u­la­tion. Your pool of tal­ent, of course.

• Past Olympic suc­cess. As an in­di­ca­tor of a sports cul­ture in the na­tion.

• Host-coun­try ef­fect. Host coun­tries seem to be do­ing bet­ter than they nor­mally would. This can be ex­plained as a home-game ef­fect and as a fi­nan­cial boost in prepa­ra­tions for host­ing the games.

• Planned econ­omy. Coun­tries with planned economies tend to in­vest more in sport be­cause they value the pres­tige that sport­ing suc­cess brings. Think of China, Cuba, North Korea, Soviet Union.

Now, most of these fac­tors wouldn't ex­plain Ukraine's past suc­cess in the Olympics. It is not a wealthy coun­try, not a very pop­u­lous one, it hasn't hosted Olympic Games, and its past per­for­mance is hard to mea­sure be­cause it was blended into USSR's and other em­pires' medal tal­lies for the ma­jor­ity of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury.

But planned econ­omy? Yes, that is the rea­son. "But Ukraine is a free econ­omy, at least the­o­ret­i­cally, isn't it?" you'd ob­ject. And that is cor­rect. But 70+ years of so­cial­ist cul­ture would have some mo­men­tum, wouldn't it? Gen­er­a­tions of peo­ple have been raised as chil­dren of a great coun­try - a su­per­power that will show this world the way. Win­ning Olympics wasn't about the sports. It was an equiv­a­lent to win­ning the Space Race, or the Cold War. It is about be­ing the first.

It is no won­der Ukraine was per­form­ing well in the Olympics be­fore. But the coun­try has no busi­ness be­ing in the Top 10 or even Top 20. With econ­omy be­ing stag­nant and pop­u­la­tion drop­ping, the fall in the rank­ings is noth­ing but a good thing for Ukraine - it sig­nals for a shift in the na­tion's mind­set and pri­or­i­ties.

In 1996, Ukraine was ranked 9th, and Cuba - a small, poor, but also so­cial­is­tic coun­try - was ranked 8th, while Den­mark, the world's hap­pi­est na­tion, fin­ished 18th. 20 years later, Ukraine is 31st, Den­mark is 28th while Cuba is 18th. And an­other "hap­pi­est" coun­try - Nor­way? They don't seem to care: they fin­ished 30th in 1996, and they are num­ber 74 this year. So maybe, the Olympics is not all there is?

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