Letter: Why countries are good and bad at Olympic games

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The Independent Online
I FOUND Hugh Jones's piece ('Winners and Losers in Barcelona', 9 August) fascinating. Measuring national performance by relating medal score to population size is obviously sensible. Who would have guessed that in these terms, the most successful nation would turn be Hungary?

The more interesting question raised by the article is: what accounts for the huge variation in performance across nations? Many would point to tradition, general health, training facilities, competitive structure, and so on.

I carried out a simple exercise attempting to relate medal score per head of population to three explanatory factors - population (it is harder to spot talent in large countries), life expectancy (a reasonable measure of health) and per capita income (richer countries can afford better facilities). About half the cross-country variation in medal performance could be accounted for by these factors. Britain's performance was wholly accounted for by the relationship between medal score per head and the collective strength of population size, life expectancy and per capita income. The surprises were Hungary, Cuba, Namibia, Bulgaria, South Korea, Kenya and the Unified Team. All did much better than could be forecast on this basis.

As for Britain, one cannot expect any changes in life expectancy or population by 1996. But if the recession continues, then watch for a slightly worse performance in Atlanta.

Monojit Chatterji,

University of Dundee