MindBullets 20 Years


Olympic mercenaries or new age trailblazers?

The tiny island nation of Sao Tome and Principe today finished the Beijing Olympics with a massive 57 medal haul. This remarkable nation is home to just 200 thousand people. Controversy reigns over their results.

After the discovery of oil in 2001, civil war followed the government takeover by President Miguel Trouvaada. His military government has ruled relatively benevolently but much of the oil wealth has been spent on the president’s passion for sport. Facilities for athletes are considered the best in the world. President Trouvaada offered top athletes, trainers and sports doctors life-long salaries and instant citizenship in exchange for their services. Athletes from Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia flocked to take up the offer. Sao Tome is considered one of the most beautiful islands in the world – famous as the island chosen by Baccardi for their adverts.

Sport stars are big business with billions of dollars in sponsorship tied up in global contracts. The Olympics, however, is supposed to be a competition pitting nations against each other.

“The whole basis for Olympic competition has been reduced to individual competition,” declares Juan Salazar, chairman of the IOC. “Where is the fair basis for competition when nations simply buy talent?”

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ANALYSIS >> SYNTHESIS: How this scenario came to be

2000s: World Population Levels Off
By 2000 most developed nations had seen a levelling off of their population growth rates. This caused tremendous concern as to the sustainability of future growth. Many countries set about attracting talented immigrants from developing countries. The UN reports that an average of 2 million people per year are migrating from developing countries to more developed ones. Almost one-third of these people migrate to the US. The greatest impact, however, is felt in the Middle East. 74% of the United Arab Emirates’ population is foreign born, followed by Kuwait (60%) and Saudi Arabia (26%). Immigrants frequently do not have political rights – they cannot vote, although they do pay taxes.

The number of people residing in a country not of their birth reaches 175 million people (3% of the world’s population) in 2002.

2004: Buying Talent
Qatar promises Kenyan runner Stephen Cherono US$ 1 000 per month for life if he becomes Qatari and competes in the Athens Olympics for them. He does so, changing his name to Saif Saeed Shaheen. Cuban-born triple jumper, Yamile Aldama, flew to Khartoum to become Sudanese in two days to participate in Athens.

Questions around the ethics of nationality start to arise. Why are sports stars easily absorbed but lesser mortals treated with disdain?

Two economists, Andrew Bernard of the Tuck School of Business, and Meghan Busse of the Haas School of Business, accurately predicted the number of medals that American athletes would take home in the Sydney Games in 2000. Their predictions for 2004 were equally accurate. They base their predictions entirely on economic statistics: population and wealth. More people means a higher chance of producing a top athlete. The higher a country’s income, the better the odds that their athletes will receive top-class training and facilities. They are able to explain the gradual convergence in proportional medal talleys between rich and poor countries by showing that, economically, the gap between rich and poor countries is narrowing.

Of course, these predictions assume that a country will continue to spend money on a wide host of things that a country may need.

President Miguel Trouvaada is not interested in economic development. He spent all the surplus cash on sports facilities and attracting talented foreigners. He claimed that by 2008 he would be able to field the best team of athletes the world had ever seen.

2008: Sao Tome and Principe Cleans Up
The US received a total of 97 medals in the 2000 Olympics, and 93 in 2004, are horrified at their 2008 results – just 84 medals. They were not the only ones.

Most countries saw tiny Sao Tome and Principe, who had never won a medal before, scoop up a grand talley of 57 medals. The result catapulted the discussion of migration back into the news.

Clearly, countries are benefitting from their talented new comers. Unfortunately in 2008 it resulted in a few bruised egos at the Olympics.

Warning: Hazardous thinking at work

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