You may have unintentionally noticed that the medals table of the just-concluded Olympics in Tokyo, Japan is strikingly similar to how countries are ranked in terms of nominal GDP. The top 5 countries on the medals table were the United States, China, Japan, Britain, and Russia. In contrast, when you rank the countries in the world in terms of nominal GDP, the table would look like this: United States, China, Japan, Germany, and United Kingdom. How are the wealthiest countries ending up with more gold medals in the Olympics than their much poorer counterparts? Is their success a mere factor of their wealth and population size, or are there other factors at play?
Undoubtedly, wealth and significant population size are common denominators across countries that top the Olympics medal table. However, if population size and a country’s GDP were enough to dominate the medals table, Nigeria would rank highest in Africa. Well, Nigeria ranked 8th in Africa and 74th on the entire medals table instead. Clearly, a large population size affords any country a large pool of sporting talent to pick from, but it is not enough to determine the country’s performance at global competitions. So, what can countries like Nigeria learn and do to improve their poor outings?
After China’s general poor performance at the Seoul 1988 Olympics, where only five gold medals were won, the country pursued a well-crafted sports policy that started by increasing budgetary allocation to the sports ministry. The Chinese understood that the only way to improve their chances in subsequent Olympics was to improve the quality and quantity of their investment in sports. But it wasn’t simply about increasing the budget; it was more about what they were investing in.
The Chinese realized that science in sports influenced training techniques, nutrition, and health management. It became apparent that performance was not determined solely by the athlete’s determination but by the quality of preparation and facilities available to the athlete. Not long after China implemented these policies, the results were evident at the next Olympics held in Barcelona (1992). China would eventually win 16 gold medals in what has been regarded as a remarkable improvement from the 1988 Olympics.
While their investment paid off, it could only have happened because of the sheer discipline and commitment of their sports administrators. These administrators had a clear sense of purpose and the sincerity to implement the newly adopted sports policy to the last letter. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Nigeria’s sports administrators. Whereas there is a written sports policy, there is a lack of discipline and a clear sense of purpose to follow through.
Interestingly, studies have shown that the most prosperous countries participating in the Olympics win at least 60% of their medals from specific sports (or competitions). To be successful, therefore, governments may have to pursue the specialization strategy where they make the necessary investments and preparations in a particular sport or two. That way, their chances of success become greatly enhanced. It is no surprise that the Kenyans and the Ethiopians dominate a specific athletic competition. The mistake poorer countries tend to make is to compete favorably in every major sport in the Olympics. This ill-advised strategy often leads to failure.
Finally, the quality of preparation for both the athletes and the administrators is a crucial determinant of how well a nation will perform at the Olympics. For the wealthiest countries, their level of preparation is almost war-like. The administrators develop a laser focus on the set goals and objectives while the athletes are provided with the proper support (technical and infrastructural) to help for adequate preparation. As observed in the just-concluded Olympics, Nigeria’s sports administrators spend a lot more time and valuable resources in unnecessary politicking instead of preparing adequately for the competition. The result was not just a poor outing but an embarrassing one that saw several athletes disqualified for fundamental procedural issues.
If Nigeria must succeed in changing its fortune for good at the next Olympics, it must be prepared to make substantial financial investments in sports, ensure that the right people are in charge of sports administration, and focus on enhanced training and participation in only a few competitions.