Saturday, August 13, 2016

An Olympics of Greater Equality?

On the previous post, the author already mentioned that the Olympics is fundamentally a game for richer countries.  Smaller countries with little resources to provide right training facilities cannot expect to win at the international level no matter how much raw talents are found in their citizenry.  On this note, this year's Rio Olympics so far does not look too different from others, with the usual major sporting powers (US, China, Japan, Australia, Russia) gobbling up a significant portion of medals on offer so far.  The individual athletes of individual events remain dominant due to availability of systematic training to succeed.

However, look beyond the aggregate medal count figures, and a new, albeit subtle, pattern emerges.  Notable this year has been a slew of first-time medaling for smaller countries (Singapore, Fiji, Vietnam, Kosovo, and even the Refugee Team, to name a few) and others who won for the first time in many Olympics (Philippines, for instance).  If looked at individual events, the examples are even more numerous, with countries not noted for certain events making concrete breakthroughs in the performance.  It feels as if a more "equal" Olympics across more countries is under way.

Of course, athletes, no matter where they are from, do not win by luck.  Ability to spare large amount of time to train with best possible coaching and best possible facilities are indispensable for success.  And the fact that many more countries are able to medal means the availability of good coaching and facilities are, slowly as it may seem, becoming more universal, giving more people in more places opportunities to partake in sporting competitiveness at the highest international level.  With international sports being an expression of nationalism, it is no doubt that more people in more places can feel pride in their respective countries.

And that pride should not simply be for their successful athletes.  For many of them, accessing the best possible coaching and facilities are simply not possible in their countries of origin that have little past experience of success in their particular sport.  Many had to go abroad (as the case of Singapore's gold medalist Joseph Schooling did in the US) to improve.  The fact that some athletes are now financially capable enough to go abroad for training display greater geographic spread of global wealth and greater mobility of human capital in a world increasing wrought by harsh realities of even cultural protectionism.

The question now is how to further that spread of wealth.  The fact that more countries win medals in Olympics may mean that more countries are growing rich enough to focus on athletic development.  But this does not change the fact that the traditional sporting powers still have a much more widespread diversity in sporting success.  These powers do not depend on success of single individuals or single events.  Instead, they develop generations after generations of successful athletes who can win in a whole range of different events.  The ability to achieve overall success is still something only a few countries can achieve.

For more countries to achieve more spread-out, long-lasting success in sports, it is no longer enough just for the country to become rich.  In contrast, the need ought to shift to more equality within the country, so that many people, rather than a single person who can afford to train professionally, are involved in competitive sports.  Governments and private institutions must be put in place to ensure that every common person with that particular desire and talent can access a sport that s/he likes to participate in and become better at it.  It is the presence of such sporting institutions that make the US the dominant sporting power.

In such efforts, for one athlete to achieve international success is perhaps the best first step to take.  Success in a sport X not just create a national hero but also generate interest in that particular sport.  The people suddenly realize that citizens of their particular country can be good at X and see hope for future success.  In turn, such hope among the populace suddenly create political demand for facilities to cater for training more athletes in that particular sport.  If the country can move to quickly satisfy the demand, greater popular interests can conceivably be turned into future, more sustained, sporting success.

The major sporting powers themselves should have an interest to see a more diverse set of successful international sportsmen.  After all, dominance by one country in a particular sport will only reduce the international appeal of the sport, eventually forcing that sport to be reduced in importance in the Olympics (China's dominance in table tennis is a particularly glaring one, with number of events reduced to four from six).  Commercially, when more countries have hope to win at Olympics, the Olympics will have bigger viewership, a boon for major sponsors that have been dominated by firms from sporting powers in the past.

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