Duck! and Gather

Gold Medals: China vs. USA vs. Canada

Posted on: August 19, 2008

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Forgive me if the following analysis is just too obvious to bother blogging about. But in case not, here goes ….

As I write this, China leads the Olympic medal race with 42 golds. The USA is second with 25 golds. Third place starts with Britain (15 golds), and drops pretty quickly from there. Down at position 17 is Canada, with a measly 2 golds. (Canada is a country with a population roughly the size of California. China’s population is about 4 times the size of the US.)

The big question about these relative numbers — 42, 25, and 2 — is: Why the differential? Here are my answers …

China is a top-down country; the US, bottom-up. This dichotomy refers to the fact that every person is simultaneously an individual, and a member of one or more groups (communities). China tends to see people in the latter way (as members of a group); the US tends to see people in the former way (as individuals). That is, China celebrates the community, and discourages the individual, whereas the US celebrates the individual, and pretty much forgets about the community.

How does this dynamic play into sports? Pretty obvious. 42 faceless gold medals for China; 17 gold medals for the minor stars of the US; and 8 golds for the People’s Republic of Michael Phelps. (I saw that cute phrase in the New York Times).

Read Michael Phelps’ story. How he started swimming at age 7. How he was “discovered” by a mad genius swimming coach at 11. How he turned pro as a sophomore in high score. And the rest is history.

Read the story of failed Chinese hurdler Liu Xiang. Around the time Michael Phelps was stumbling into his community pool at age 7 — evidently because his sister was a swimmer — state minders in China were measuring the young boy Liu Xiang. Based on the relative length of his Achilles tendon and other measured physical attributes, the minders put Liu into a sports school, targeting him for the high jump. Sometime early on, they switched him to hurdling. And the rest is history.

So why does China have 42 golds as I write; while the US has only 25? The answer is simple: the Chinese government picks the sports that its athletes will play, whereas the US individuals choose for themselves the sports they will play.

Which set of sports does the Chinese government pick for its people? It picks the sports most likely to produce gold medals. Hence, China has 42 golds, in every obscure corner of the Olympic program.

Which set of sports do individuals in the US choose to pursue? First choice: the sports with lots of bling. Second choice: anything else we’re good at.

One example of a sport in which much money can be made is basketball. I previously blogged about the US basketball team and how it has learned the lessons of defense and team play. With these lessons, the US is now unbeatable.

In fact, the US could field 5-10 teams of 12 men each that would probably sweep all the basketball medals — provided these teams adhered to the fundamentals of the game. This is just by way of saying that the talent level of basketball players in the US is very wide and very deep.

But in the Olympics, there is only one gold medal for men’s basketball. That is, when the US team wins the Olympics this weekend, that win will count as only one gold medal toward the US total. Hence, you can see why the US has only 25 gold medals to China’s 42.

What about Canada? Looking at Canada is interesting because it highlights something unsaid about the Chinese versus American system for identifying talented children. As mentioned, the Chinese run a state-driven talent-hunting operation; the US is the “wild west”, in which kids “with game” get randomly matched with with adults who want to “create the next Michael Phelps”.

In the Canada in which I grew up, there was virtually no talent hunting system — at least outside of hockey. I mean, maybe there was something like that in hockey, but there wasn’t in anything else. This talent-hunting wasn’t missing just in sports; it was missing everywhere. I never noticed this until I moved from Canada to the US in 1988.

The Canada in which I remember growing up as a child in the 1970s did not distinguish children along the lines of talent. I mean, the country did not do so on a systematic basis. To be sure, there were pockets exceptions to this (e.g. some people in Brantford obviously spotted the young Gretzky).

For example, in my life, my grade school system skipped me from the first grade to the third grade because I was far advanced of my peers in learning. But if talent was the only metric for skipping me, I could have been advanced much further than the third grade. But they didn’t do that. Why not?

I think the reason is that it would not have been nice. It would not have been nice to place a 6-year-old in the 5th grade. Not nice for the 5th graders (ie., “see you dummies, here’s a 6-year-old who can clean your clocks”); and not nice for the 6-year-old boy (ie., “here Peter, join these 10-year-olds who will resent you, and by the way, forget about any athletic interests”).

So there’s your answer. Canada has only two gold medals because it does not separate out young children on the basis of talent. At least, it does not do so on a systematic basis — neither top-down (a la China) nor bottom-up (like the US). And I believe the reason that Canada does not do this is because doing so would not be nice.

Canada will always suck at the Olympics. This is the price of a really nice place to grow up.

for the money has gone too far

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