K. Anis Ahmed

Winning gold, no mystery

August 8, 2012

148073098MT00033_Olympics_DAs we watch the 2012 Olympics, and marvel at feats of dazzling performance, one question will run through many Bangladeshi minds: Will we ever win a medal?

At the moment Bangladesh not only suffers the ignoble distinction of being one of 80 or so countries that has never won a medal but also (as boorishly pointed out by American commentators) the one with the largest population.

So, what is holding us back?

The correlation between economic prosperity and excellence in athletics is commonsensical. However, economics is not the only factor, nor is its effect always straight-forward. Countries like Kenya and Nigeria have averaged more medals per Summer games since 1992 than a larger nation like India or a prosperous (and quite athletic) one like Thailand.

Dan Johnson, a professor at Colorado College, has made a name for himself using economic data to predict medals tally by country with more than 90% accuracy. In addition to income and population, his model accounts for two other factors: a host-nation effect and a “nation-specific culture effect.” What Johnson’s work doesn’t do, however, is explain the effect on medals of marginal differences of income, which can be crucial for poorer countries like Bangladesh. Nor does he define what exactly constitutes “nation-specific cultural effect.”

It is not good enough to look at total population or GDP in general. What one needs to do is determine the portion of population that is within a range of income necessary to train competitively enough for Olympic standards from the right age. For simplicity’s sake, one could define that income as USD $10,000/year in case of higher income countries and $5000/year for lower income ones (allowing for purchasing power parity effects). Using median income of countries, and likely populations in different ranges, it becomes possible to assess the “medal-potential population (MPP).”

The chart here provides a layman’s desk-top calculation to arrive at an MPP for top performing countries. The chart looks at countries that have won at least one medal since 1992 and also won at least one gold medal since then.

Olympic-Chart-large (2)

Here is a hyperlink to the full summary and methods of the calculation.

The 50 countries who meet the minimum criteria of consistency and excellence are, interestingly, neither all rich nor large. In fact, 18 of the 50 countries who meet these criteria have an estimated MPP of 5 million or fewer. As a low-income country, Bangladesh’s MPP should be assumed to be no more than 1% of the population, but given the size of our black and grey economies, it may in fact be two to three times higher, or close to five million!

Why can 18 nations with an equal size MPP consistently win medals when Bangladesh cannot? We have accounted for the effects of income and population. We cannot leverage the host-nation advantage anytime soon. So, the only factor remaining is “nation-specific cultural effect.”

Culture is a nebulous term, and needs to be narrowed down to something measurable for the purpose of planning. Luckily, a great deal of recent research across a wide array of fields does provide insights when it comes to training for and measuring excellence in performance.

Best summarized by Geoff Colvin in the book “Talent is Overrated,” his ground-breaking research shows that, more than income, more than any inherent IQ or “talent”, what separates world-class performers from ordinary beings is that the former put in at least 10,000 hours of practice, usually quite early on in their career.

This is why, measured in terms of medals per million MPP, North Korea – where the state clearly allocates significant resources to training athletes – tops the list. Australia outperforms America by this count, even though America wins more medals overall and is by far the biggest winner historically.

So, if Bangladesh truly wants to win an Olympic medal, it has to find a way to deliver 10,000 hours of practice per athlete at the right age. This is not the same as saying that one needs a lot more training for a lot more people. Neither building one great academy nor expanding school sports in general will do the trick. What one needs to do is something far more specific and targeted.

First, identify sports where we can be competitive, given logistical requirements and any in-built capacity. Bangladesh won a Commonwealth gold in shooting without an extensive or consistent program of training. It would not take too much to quadruple the number of athletes being trained, or to deliver 10,000 hours of practice to the most promising of them. That’s all it would take to go from Commonwealth to Olympic gold.

To deliver that amount of training to the right talents in the right sports would of course need informed, targeted planning and a higher degree of competence and integrity in execution than the prevailing local standard.

Policy alone – even well executed – is, however, never enough by itself. The broader culture needs to change. A country that has recently expressed a desire to become a “middle-income country” is not symptomatic of a nation burning with a desire to excel, to become the best. The Chinese would not be content with just to become “good enough.”

No one is saying we need to win Olympic medals. It is perfectly okay to muddle along in contented mediocrity. What is not okay is then to blame our athletes for their losses. We are not under-served by our athletes. It is they who are under-served by us.

Somewhere in Bangladesh, some girl is somersaulting around her living room, and some boy is leaving his friends in the dust in a race up the street. But we are not doing enough to get either of them to Rio.

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K. Anis Ahmed is vice-president of the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh.

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16 Responses to “ Winning gold, no mystery ”

  1. Mak Rony on September 11, 2012 at 10:21 am

    This is very interesting that everyone in Bangladesh has a theory for everything. If you all knew what to do for a medal, why haven’t you done so earlier? Go train 10,000 hours!

  2. Imran on September 11, 2012 at 12:13 am

    Very interesting article, and some interesting comments too.

    I’ve actually set up a blog on this exact topic, here: http://bangladesholympics.blogspot.com.

    I’m going to post a link to this article on my blog – hope that’s ok!

    Thanks.

  3. Kazi Saifuddin Hossain on August 14, 2012 at 1:09 pm

    I wanted to comment on this issue earlier, but others must have read my mind. Thanks to all who have commented here. I would only refer to Yesterday’s Daily New Age report styled ‘A question and grim reality’ by Azad Majumder from London, UK. The downward slide of our sporting activities has been depicted in the piece.

    The countries that have won medals in the recently concluded London Olympic games, haven’t won those solely for their participants’ physical prowess; a lot of thought has gone into these games as well. In other words, it has been possible only for their good understanding of the matter and their intellect. It’s a mind game, they say. Yes, indeed! Our high-ups will probably never understand that. I feel that holding the Bangladesh flag aloft in the march-past and then failing to win medals on a never-ending march in the Olympic arena is a disgrace to our country!

    It is high time to formulate long term policies. Otherwise, just leave the field!

    • Ezajur Rahman on August 14, 2012 at 5:56 pm

      Our Olympic performance is a true reflection of our condition. It is not about money and physical prowess. It is just as much, if not more, about faith and confidence in oneself and in one’s country.

      We are as talented and as resourceful as anyone else. Our number one problem is that our political establishment has created a system wide culture of mediocrity and failure. Our sports is politicised. It is a dirty, rotten disgrace.

      Our PM’s entourage was bigger than our team!

      Shame! Shame! Shame!

  4. omar on August 13, 2012 at 4:22 pm

    Loved reading this. Practice does makes one perfect.

  5. kgazi on August 9, 2012 at 2:47 am

    That’s a fair observation that Bangladesh may have multiple Usain Bolts pulling rickshaws on the streets, but we as a nation neither value their talents nor know that they exist. We just don’t have any system of nurturing, developing and identifying athletes in Bangladesh.

    If someone springs out and shouts “Oh yes we do, Bangladesh govt has millions of dollars allocated for sports and Olympics” then we all know where that money goes. It goes into some minister’s Swiss Bank account, or to pay for his family trips to the Olympics!

    Govt CORRUPTION robs the nation of all talents and Olympic glory, and sadly of basic human development. Dr Dan Johnson, please make sure to add the factor of govt corruption in your economic data.

  6. Sohel on August 9, 2012 at 12:25 am

    @abak:

    Actually, Colvin’s work came before Gladwell. And while neither is a scientist, they did rely on scientific research. What was interesting is that even at the highest levels, a winner almost always had WAY more practice than others, and that was what made the difference.

    I feel you are missing the point of the piece a bit. No one is saying we have to have Usain Bolt. North Korea isn’t producing Bolts, either. But they do get medals. We are simply not delivering the kind of practice needed to perform at that level.

    Look at Siddikur Rahman in golf. He may not be Tiger Woods, but it is his many hours of practice – built on the foundation of quality facilities and training – that lets his inherent talent shine on the international stage.

    So, since we have a large enough population, we should be able to deliver that kind of practice and facilities to produce some more top talents who will make us proud.

    • Ezajur Rahman on August 14, 2012 at 6:03 pm

      Absolutely – it is about partcipating and trying to the best of our abilities. That is all. Instead, most of our party hacks are prouder of the size of the PM’s entourage than the size of our team! It is not just about pride – we are failing our youth. Chatra League, Chatra Dal and Chtra Shibbir are not enough :)

  7. matt on August 8, 2012 at 10:57 pm

    Probably also worth pointing out on your chart that the top 5 countries there, other than North Korea (which is obviously a special case) tend to win the vast, vast majority of their medals in one sport: running. Kenya, Ethiopia and Morocco excel at middle/long distance races, Jamaica obviously at sprinting. And that’s a sport where, compared to many others, the financial barriers to entry are pretty low — all you really need is a working pair of legs.

  8. Kalam Ahmed on August 8, 2012 at 10:18 pm

    All these efforts to get a medal in the Olympics? Why? Why not think of feeding the children first? Giving them a decent schooling, and some housing should be a bigger priority. How about some good roads? A medal for good government? Or, why not lobby for kabaddi to be included in the games and then win the medal? No need for 10,000 hours of training there.

    • Kamal Ahmed Lohani on August 9, 2012 at 10:20 pm

      So are you suggesting that we abolish our sports sector alltogether because we need to feed the hungry? This was a very strange comment to make! Probably people like Mr Kalam are at the helm of affairs who don’t see the importance of training and making a name in the world.

    • Mahbub on August 9, 2012 at 10:25 pm

      What kind of a comment is this Mr Kalam? Please don’t mix one thing with other. Fighting poverty and hunger, and improving in sports are completely different things. And we could lobby for including kabaddi in the Games, but why would we not try to excel in other sports that we participate in? Mr Anis has written the right thing. We need to practice harder and in a more focused manner if we are to do better. There’s no point in blaming the athletes and the sportsmen only. Because we too are actually not doing enough for them.

  9. Jamal on August 8, 2012 at 7:14 pm

    It is funny that we (as a nation) are physically handicapped and yet the government spends quite a bit on Olympic preparations etc. On the other hand, our kids are doing excellent in Math, Physics Olympiads, etc. and there is zero assistance from the government. We should have priorities sorted out in terms of investment.

    • Sakhawaat on August 9, 2012 at 10:11 pm

      Well obviously the government is not spending money in a targeted and transparent manner. Otherwise we would have won a medal or two by now.

  10. abak on August 8, 2012 at 6:57 pm

    The 10,000 hour rule is hardly groundbreaking research by this Colvin guy. Malcolm Gladwell made it famous, not that Gladwell is a very credible scientist either- he’s more like an intelligent infotainer who knows how to sell books and the science is sketchy at best. After all, how do you prove it? Go train for 10,000 hours and see if the theory holds?

    Let’s face it, you could train until the end of time, but you’ll never run as fast as Usain Bolt.

    • Ezajur Rahman on August 14, 2012 at 5:24 pm

      Get to the point: if we won’t even bother train anyone for anything, there will be 160 million people who won’t be able to run faster than Usain Bolt walks!

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