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Economic and Social History Blog

28. The Olympics and the Zoetemelk syndrome (17-4-2020)

The Olympics and the Zoetemelk syndrome (17-4-2020)

Written by: Jan Luiten van Zanden

How much killer instinct do athletes have? Or are they already happy when they participate at the Olympics? There are clearly large cultural differences involved here. The American political system is based on the ‘the winner takes it all’ principle, and sports are organized likewise. No match of an American sports ends in a draw, for example, as there simply has to be a winner, a hero at the end of the day. European sports, soccer most famously, often end in draws, which slightly disappoints us when it happens but still is accepted. We perhaps suffer a bit from the Zoetemelk syndrome, named after a cyclist from the 1970s and 1980s who five times became second in the Tour de France; his exceptional first place in 1980 was due to the fact that his main rival had to withdraw. His extremely kind personality fitted the second place he so often occupied; he clearly missed the ‘killer instinct’ of the ‘real champion’. The Dutch national soccer team has a similar tradition of becoming second at world championships – the trauma of 1974 is still fresh!

The Olympics medals dataset allows us to answer the question if there is systematic evidence that such different cultures concerning winning and participating are reflected in the medals athletes win. The expectation is that American athletes, once they participate, are overrepresented among the gold medallists, because they are better trained to win, more eager, more ruthless, whereas Dutch athletes are already quite happy with a silver or a bronze medal. As the numbers of gold, silver and bronze medals are equal (there are tiny differences – certain sports, such as boxing, award two bronze medals for each gold and silver one), we expect that one-third of medals won by countries are gold. If the share of gold medals is much below one-third, we are in Zoetemelk territory, if it is much above one-third, the country has real killer instinct.

Let’s start with the Netherlands: on average, 28% of the medals were gold, which is clearly below 33,3%  (but not a tragedy yet). Men are entire to blame: they score 24%, women nearly 33%. By contrast, the US are with 47% gold medals substantially overrepresented among the winners. No country has such an uneven distribution of medals biased towards first places. Moreover, men and women score the same. Other big countries that are used to dominate, are also often on the golden side of the medal distribution: USSR/Russia scores 40% golden medals, and even 42% for women; China, which recently joined the club of the big countries, has 36% golden medals, 32% for women. The UK breaks even (33% of all medals, 25% of women), and Germany is marginally above the mark (34% and 35%). Italy behaves like a big country (35%, 28% for women only), as does Cuba (40% for both sexes), but Japan in a way underperforms (27% and 24%) – we all know that Japanese are too kind and too modest.

Most small European countries are at or even below the Dutch level: Belgium scores a disappointing 21% gold medals for both men and women, Sweden 30% (women 20%), Denmark 29% (women 49%!), Finland 23% (women 14%), Poland 21%, Spain 22% and Switzerland 25%.

It may well be that this pattern is not only caused by the cultural determination to win, but that size as such matters as well. The USA can draw upon a much larger potential of active athletes, which means that the average quality of their representatives will be higher than that of small countries. But then you would expect them to win all medals, many silver and bronze medals as well. The dominance of speed skating by the Dutch in recent years, illustrates what might happen in such a case. In 2014, for example, 44% of medals at the winter Olympics were gold; in 2016, at the next summer Olympics, it was only 19%. In particular when the number of athletes per country is limited, this may help to explain the high killer instinct of the big countries.

It is also interesting to see how teams fare compared to individual athletes. For most countries the scores are very similar – or teams score worse. Male Dutch teams do not do well, with a share of 20% for golden medals, but female teams score an amazing 42%, only surpassed by the USA (50% for female teams), Cuba (70%) and Canada (54%). The ‘real men’ in the Netherlands are female team players! What about this as the take-home message?

Continue reading: Madrid and the resource curse (18-4-2020)