Quit Whining. Demographically, we did just fine in Sydney

Reprinted from the Globe & Mail, October 3, 2000.

by David K. Foot

Congratulations, Canada. We did it again. We beat the Americans at the Olympics. With a population nine times larger than ours, they only won seven times as many medals in Sydney. Put another way, Canada won 0.455 medals per million people while the United States won 0.352 medals per million people. So, why the hand-wringing?

True, we didn't do nearly as well as the Aussies. But it was their Olympics and they invested heavily in them. They built a national institute of sport and then repeated this in each of the states with fine results. However, when compared with some of the European countries, we don't look as good. Russia, with a population of almost five times that of Canada, won more than six times as many medals. Tops of the per-capita count were the relatively smaller countries of Jamaica, Cuba and Norway, followed by the East European countries of Estonia, Hungary and Bulgaria. On a per-capita basis, Canada ranks 41 and the United States comes in at 46.

The overall winner is often a very small country with a single medal. In 1996, it was Tonga. Now it is the Bahamas (with two medals,) followed by Barbados and Iceland (with one medal each). All have populations under 300,000.

However, these per-capita rankings do change somewhat if the quality of medals is accounted for. Using a 3,2,1 point system for gold, silver and bronze respectively, still results in the Bahamas capturing the top spot, followed by Australia, Cuba, Norway, Jamaica and Hungary. The big mover in this category is the Netherlands, with 12 of its 25 medals being gold, which moves it up to No. 7. Both Canada and the United States move up slightly to 39 and 40, respectively.

A demographic approach to Olympic medals has entered the mainstream, and we now have global Web sites, such as aptly-named Silly2000.com [site no longer online], and the well-reasoned Medaltally.com [site no longer online].

These data show that our Sydney performance was well within the historical average when ranked against other countries, or other years. Sure, there were new events at this Olympics, but there were also new countries. In total medals, Canada ended up tied for 17th, after placing 24th in 1996, 22nd in 1992 and 27th in 1998. This ranking suggests that we should stop the hand-wringing.

The results are not quite as encouraging on the per-capita medal count. After a gradual improvement over the past three Olympics, from 0.37 in 1988 to 0.63 in 1992, and then 0.73 in 1996, we fell back to 0.46 in 2000. So, perhaps only two cheers for Sydney are in order, but cheers -- not jeers -- is what they should be.

Of course, we must strive for improvement. But let's recognize that we're not the losers many of our news media would have us believe -- and then move on, perhaps to a 2008 Olympics in Canada. That will be just in time for the children of the Boomers, the Echo generation, to compete. Preteens and teenagers now, they will be in their prime medal ages at the end of this decade. But we face a challenge: This demographic phenomenon is even more apparent in the United States, so we'll have to stay sharp if we're to retain our position.

David K. Foot is a professor emeritus of economics at the University of Toronto, and co-author of the Boom, Bust & Echo books.