UKRAINE JUST HAD ITS WORST SUMMER OLYMPICS
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?