Training and government support are part of the equation in terms of Olympic medal count, but Senior Fellow Linda Nazareth asks if is there also a demographic component to things in the Globe and Mail.
By Linda Nazareth, Feb. 14, 2018.
The Olympics are starting up and the medal count is beginning. Training and government support are part of the equation (and let’s not even talk about doping programs), but is there also a demographic component to things? Are there some countries that will be at a disadvantage or an advantage at these Olympics just based on their population and the age of that population?
To be sure, government spending is a huge factor in terms of how athletes fare, whatever the demographics. Much was made of the fact that at the Rio Olympics, Britain, a country of 65 million people, got 67 medals – its best cache ever. That is especially impressive if you compare it to a country like China, which got 70 medals despite a population of 1.3 billion.
Britain’s success had a lot to do with the fact that, in 1994, the country created a National Lottery, and in tandem decided to allocate more money to elite Olympic sport. By the time Rio came along, the country was spending £350-million ($610-million) on the program – approximately 70 times what it spent 20 years earlier in Atlanta.
Still, demographics do matter. To start, there is the fact that a larger population gets you a better chance at medals. That is, assuming that raw natural talent is randomly distributed, having a big pool to choose from boosts your chances of finding elite athletes. In a comprehensive analysis done in 2004, researchers Andrew Bernard and Meghan Busse looked at data for the period from 1960 to 1996 and found that larger countries did indeed have an edge in winning medals.
The United States is the prime example of “bigger is better”: with its 321-million population, it won 121 medals at the Rio Olympics, compared with 22 for Canada (which had a population of about 36 million). It is hard to separate country size from other factors however, meaning that more than demographics are at work. The United States has a bigger population, but due to various factors including its expertise in multiple sports, it also sends bigger teams to the Olympics than other countries.
What also presumably matters is not just having a large population, but having population that is aged appropriately to source potential Olympians. According to Sports Illustrated, in 2016 the average age of an Olympic medalist was 26. Although there is clearly a huge variation in this (some sports skew much younger, while Australia entered a 61 year-old equestrian in Rio) it would clearly be to countries’ advantage to have a larger pool of say, 15- to 24-year-olds, to train for the games.
Interestingly, thanks to a surge in millennial births, some countries are now reaping that demographic advantage. According to data from the United Nations, Canada’s population in the 15-to-24 range grew by 12 per cent between 1990 and 2015, while in the United States it grew by 15 per cent. In contrast, in France, which has an older population and a lower fertility rate, this source population declined by 14 per cent over the period, while in the U.K. it was down 6 per cent.
Although some believe that China will be the next country to achieve Olympic dominance, its demographic advantage is eroding. True, the absolute size of the Chinese population pool is still huge compared to other countries, but it is clearly on the decline. Thanks to the one-child policy (which ended in 2015), the 15- to 24-year-old group was down by 39 per cent over the time period, and UN projections suggest it will be down another 8 per cent by 2030. Perhaps China could gain inspiration from Japan , which continues to do well in many sports, despite the youth population having fallen 56 per cent between 1990 and 2015.
Looking forward, in terms of demographics, Canada’s demographic advantage looks to be plateauing with the 15-to-24-year-old population projected to stay just about flat through 2030. As we head into these Olympic games though, we are arguably set to be the beneficiary of a demographic dividend we have not seen for years. Let’s see if the rest of the stars align in terms of the medal count.
Linda Nazareth is a Senior Fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.