Nate Silver, a baseball statistics analyst turned electoral analyst, has an article in the NYT Magazine entitled “Let`s Play Medalball.”
It’s been almost a decade since the publication of “Moneyball,” Michael Lewis’s famous book-turned-movie about how the small-market Oakland Athletics used statistical artistry to compete against their (much) richer rivals. Billy Beane is still the A’s general manager, but here’s a modest proposal for his next act. He could become the head of another budget-strapped sports organization like, say, the Olympic Committee of Kyrgyzstan — or another small-market country with limited resources. Bishkek is nice this time of year!
How might Beane turn “moneyball” into “medalball”? Channeling him, I’ve identified three measures that, when weighted equally, suggest the sports in which the Kyrgyzstans of the world could direct their energy and resources to maximize their medal count.
The underlying problem with Silver`s suggestions is a lack of cynicism. Anybody familiar with Olympic history would realize that lots of countries have tried to maximize medals over the years, often with much success.
The most obvious strategy is one followed by East Germany and China: it`s much easier to win medals in women`s events. Outside of gymnastics and a few other sports, the number of girls who, deep down inside, really want to do what it takes to win is smaller. So, focus on macho sports for women, such as women`s weightlifting.
I recall an interview with a lady shotputter from China at a recent Olympics. She said she`d always wanted to be a veterinarian when she was a child, but a bunch of state athletic experts came to her elementary school, measured all the children in various ways, and then told her she was going to grow up to be a shotputter. She didn`t want to be a shotputter, she wanted to be a veterinarian, but nobody cared about her opinion. So, now she was a lady shotputter.
Women`s Olympic sports are full of uplifting and empowering stories like that.
Also, as East Germany demonstrated, giving your women lots of male hormones helps more than giving your men lots of male hormones.
For sports, such as “women`s” gymnastics that have a minimum age for female competitors, because T&A slows down how fast a girl can spin, lie (as China does).
It also helps to have a totalitarian system. For example, Cuba is a poor country, but it wins lots of Olympic medals. One reason is because the government channels youths into various Olympic sports, instead of letting them all play soccer like in other countries. Cuba is too small to win the soccer World Cup, but it can win gold at less popular sports.