THE Olympic Games are underway in Rio de Janiero, and the table as it stands at the start of Day 4 has just two medals for Africa so far: two silvers for South Africa.
It seems that Africa is waiting to shine in athletics, the events that it traditionally does best at the Games.
Still, looking at historical Olympic records set in athletics itself reveals something curious.
There are nine Olympic records held by Africans in track and field events. As you might expect, most are in the middle- and long-distance races, held by Kenyans and Ethiopians. Considering there are 47 athletics events (men and women combined), Africa has an outsized performance at the Games (19.1% of records) for its share of world population (12%).
What is more interesting is when you break down the records by gender. On that measure, there are six Olympic records held by African men, and three by women.
There is something to be said about the fact that twice as many men from Africa as women hold Olympic records. But to explain it, we must look at the general table for the all-time medals haul.
Dr Julia Bredtmann, an economist at the RWI – Leibniz Institute for Economic Research in Essen, and her colleagues Sebastian Otten, also from the Leibniz Institute, and Carsten Crede of the University of East Anglia recently developed an index that can be used to predict a country’s Olympic success.
As you might expect, countries with a large population are expected to more success, as they have a bigger pool of talent to choose from. Wealthy countries, too, can afford to invest in sports and recreation for their citizens. This may not be an option for poorer countries that are struggling to make ends meet.
There is the host effect: Host countries perform better not necessarily because they are in front of a home crowd, but for more prosaic reasons. The extra investment in facilities in order to host benefits home athletes for a couple of years before the games.
The index also factors in past Olympic success: if a country has already won many medals in the past, it is likely to continue to do so. Past success is an indicator of “sports culture” that is not easy to undermine.
Kenya might be the best African example – despite having the 7th largest population, and 8th largest GDP, it carries the day when it comes to the medals.
But the index throws up some sweet surprises. It finds that “planned economies” (otherwise known as semi-authoritarian, quasi-democratic or outright dictatorships) perform far better then you may otherwise expect.
They invest more in sports because of the prestige that sporting success brings – China and Cuba are good examples. Undemocratic regimes have a lot to prove on the international scene; they often seek legitimacy through accolades. Sports (the Olympics especially) are the perfect chance to shine in that sense.
Others with a similar political history, such as Russia, Romania and Ukraine also seem to benefit from this legacy.
The most unexpected factor that predicts Olympic success is the participation of women, which acts as a proxy indicator on the status of women in the country.
In Muslim-majority countries, for example, women are less likely to participate in sports and become athletes. Consequently, these countries usually send fewer or no female athletes, and fewer athletes means fewer chances to win medals.
African “dominance” of athletics, you could say, is incomplete until the records table has just as many women as men.
But the reason why there is less female participation in sport is, of course, a whole other story, which begins with why women don’t have as much “free time” as men.