The Olympic Slide
Following the completion of the Rio Olympic Games, a theme of concern became evident across the various media platforms in Australia. Our overall medal tally at the Olympic Games has declined since its peak of 58 in Sydney in 2000, with 49 in Athens in 2004, 46 in Beijing in 2008, 35 in London in 2012, and now 29 in Rio.
The final medal tally in Rio puts Australia in 10th place with eight gold medals, 11 silver and ten bronze, well behind the Australian Olympic Committee’s predictions of 13 gold and 37 medals. Australia’s performance wasn’t too bad considering our population size, but we were miles behind the two countries with the most gold medals. First place was the usual victors, the U.S.A, with 46 gold and 121 medals overall. Second place was the U.K., with 27 gold and 67 medals overall.
Australia is a proud sporting nation, and part of our national identity has taken a hit seeing the sharp decline in Olympic glory this century compared to the ongoing ascension of the U.S. and the U.K.
The U.S. has increased their tally from 37 gold and 93 medals in 2000, while the U.K. has dramatically improved from 11 gold and 28 medals overall back in Sydney. We used to be better than the U.K., not even that long ago, and now we are not even close. Let’s not even get started on ‘The Ashes’, where we have now lost five of the last seven test cricket series to England dating back to July 2005.
If we were to look at these statistics alone as a measure of a country’s overall success, then it is a worrying trend for Australia and a very positive sign for the U.S. and the U.K.
If we wanted to reverse this trend, it would be essential to figure out precisely what the U.S. and the U.K. are doing right and try to emulate what they are doing to get closer to their levels of success in the future. It would come down to spending more taxpayer’s money on:
- improved programs to get people to participate more in a sport at a young age,
- enhanced facilities to increase opportunities to excel,
- improved coaching to help bring out the best in athletes, and
- more focused investment towards the sports and top athletes with the highest potential of producing multiple gold medals at the Olympic Games.
The problem is that we have already tried to do this, with the Australian Sporting Commission following the lead of the U.K.’s recent success with their own ‘Winning Edge’ program. But, unfortunately, in the four years leading up to Rio, this program unevenly distributed $340m towards summer Olympic sports. These events were the ones that Australia had a better chance to win in, such as Hockey, which cost us $28million for zero medals.
At over $11million of taxpayers money per medal won in Rio, it becomes crucial to wonder if the extra cost is worth it or if there are better ways that Australia can measure ourselves or improve on the world stage?
What if there was a medal tally for non-Sporting indicators of success?
1. Gross Direct Product
Traditionally, apart from Olympic Glory, Nations have utilised their Gross Direct Product (GDP) to compare themselves to other countries and show the world how successful they are. Considering the nominal GDP of all nations in 2016, the U.S. once again smashes the field and collects the gold medal with $18,558,130,000,000. China collects the silver with $11,383,030,000,000. Japan picks up the bronze with $4,412,600,000,000. The U.K. comes in fifth place with $2,760,960,000,000, and Australia is lagging again in 13th place with $1,200,780,000,000.
Per capita, the country with the highest GDP is Luxembourg with $101,994, Switzerland is second with $80,675, and Qatar is third with $76,576, based on the 2015 International Monetary Fund 2015 estimates.
Let’s look at GDP calculations that consider purchasing power parity (PPP) relative to inflation rates and local costs of goods and services. China picks up the gold, the U.S. is relegated to silver, and India comes from nowhere into the bronze medal position. The U.K. drop to ninth, and Australia drop down to 19th.
Per capita adjusted for PPP, Qatar wins the gold, Luxembourg pick up the silver, and Singapore takes home the bronze, based on the 2015 estimates provided by the International Monetary fund.
2. The Human Development Index
The United Nations no longer believe that GDP should be the sole factor when determining which countries are best at helping their citizens develop. Instead, the Human Development Index considers GDP at purchasing power parity alongside life expectancy, education and adult literacy levels. As a result, based on the 2015 results, Norway picks up the gold, Australia claims the silver, and Switzerland the bronze.
Notably, Australia’s score has slightly improved each year from 2013 to 2015, a good indication that we are not in an overall decline as a nation. Our ranking has also improved from 4th in 2008 to 2nd from 2009 onward. Meanwhile, the U.S. rank 8th in the world, a significant drop from their bronze rank in 2013. The U.K. is 14th, a massive jump from 27th in 2013.
Once inequality is taken into account, the average level of human development in Australia is 2nd in the world. Norway wins the gold again, and the Netherlands step up to claim bronze. The U.K. drop down to 16th in the world, and the U.S. slide down to 28th.
What other factors could we also compare nations on to see how Australia stacks up?
3. The World Happiness Report
The first World Happiness Report was released in April 2012 after a resolution in July 2011 invited member countries to measure their citizens’ happiness levels and use these findings to guide their public policies. Reports are now issued each year, with the 2016 release considering six main elements as crucial to how successful we can perceive a Nation. These elements are:
- GDP per capita
- Level of social support
- Healthy life expectancy
- Freedom to make life choices
- Level of generosity
- Trust, or perceived absence of corruption in government and business
Based on the results of this report, Denmark wins the gold medal, Switzerland get the silver, and Iceland the bronze. Australia is currently in 9th place, with the U.S. 13th and the U.K. 23rd.
Once again, Australia has improved slightly since the last report, a good indicator that we are not rapidly declining as a country. The U.S. and the U.K. are both on the decline. No nation has taken a more prominent hit recently than Greece. Their significant financial difficulties are beginning to influence the social fabric of the country.
Surely overall Happiness, as measured by these factors, is more important than sporting or Olympic success. Assuming this is true, shouldn’t we be emulating Denmark or the other seven countries ahead of us on this instead of trying to look up to the U.S. or the U.K.?
4. The Happy Planet Index
The Happy Planet Index has a slightly different take on what matters most, and to them, this is sustainable well-being for all. They combine life expectancy with individual levels of well-being adjusted for inequality of outcomes within a country and divide this by their ecological footprint to obtain the overall result on the Happy Planet Index. Most Western Countries fare poorly on this scale, with Costa Rica winning the gold, Mexico the silver, and Colombia the bronze. The U.K. is 34th, with Australia and the U.S. far behind in 105th and 108th place.
Australia does okay in three out of the four items that make up this scale, coming in 7th place at 82.1 years for life expectancy, 11th place at 8% for inequality, and 12th place at 7.2/10 for subjective well-being. However, our ecological footprint, 139th out of the 140 countries included in the data, really lets us down. Only Luxembourg is worse. The U.S. isn’t much better with its ecological footprint, coming in 137th place, while the U.K. is slightly better, currently in 107th place. More needs to be done by these Western countries to reduce the ecological footprint that they are having on our planet. Haiti wins gold for the most negligible environmental footprint, with Bangladesh the silver and Pakistan the bronze.
For subjective well-being, Switzerland wins the gold with a score of 7.8/10, Norway gets the silver with 7.7/10, and Iceland claims the bronze with 7.6/10, well ahead of the U.S. (7.0/10) and the U.K. (6.9/10).
For the least inequality, the Netherlands claimed the gold with 4%, Iceland the silver with 5%, and Sweden the bronze with 6%. The U.K. is 19th with 9% inequality, and the U.S. is 34th with 13%.
Lastly, Hong Kong claims the gold with 83.6 years for life expectancy, Japan the silver with 83.2 years, and Italy the bronze with 82.7 years. The U.K. is 24th with an average life expectancy of 80.4 years, slightly ahead of the 31st ranking for the U.S. with 78.8 years.
5. Health System
If we were to think of ways to improve our quality of life further, having a sound health system should be a top priority, yet none of the U.K. (18th), Australia (32nd), or the U.S. (37th) can claim a medal based on the World Health Organisation’s 2000 ratings. So instead, France gets the gold, Italy the silver, and San Marino the bronze.
6. Academic Performance
Equally critical to the future of a country should be a good quality of education at the primary, secondary and tertiary levels. When it comes to the 2014 OECD global education rankings, the U.K. is 20th for maths and science, and 23rd for reading, while the U.S. is 28th for maths and science, and 24th for reading. Australia doesn’t fare much better, coming in at 14th in maths and science and 13th in reading.
More worryingly, Australia has dropped from 6th in maths, 8th in science and 4th in reading in the year 2000. When it comes to schooling, we seem to be declining as a nation and are now 17th for the percentage of students acquiring at least the necessary skills in these areas. We are also 19th in secondary school enrollment rates, behind both the U.S. and the U.K.
For reading, China claims the gold medal, Singapore collects the silver, and Japan the bronze. Singapore claims the gold, Hong Kong the silver, and South Korea the bronze for maths and science. South Korea was very similar in their academic performance to Australia back in 2000. Although their increase and our decrease may not seem like such a big deal, a 25 point improvement on what is known as the PISA tests would lead to an approximate expansion of $4.8 trillion to Australia’s GDP by the year 2095. Education matters.
7. Global Gender Gap Index
Based on the 2015 data, Iceland wins the gold with the slightest gender gap between males and females of 88.1%. Norway the silver with 85%, and Finland the bronze, with 85% also. The U.K. rank 18th with 75.8%, the U.S. 28th with 74%, and Australia 36th with 73.33%.
Regarding the gender gap, Australia has improved in their score from 72.41% in 2008 but have dropped 15 places over those seven years. We are closing the gender gap at a much slower rate than many other countries. We’re now 32nd in economic participation and opportunity, 1st in educational attainment, 74th in health and survival, and 61st regarding political empowerment.
8. LGBTIQ Rights
Based on the first countries to legally recognise same sex-unions, Denmark gets the gold, Norway the silver, and Sweden the bronze.
These countries also had to have legalised same-sex marriage and allow same-sex couples to adopt a child to qualify for a medal. In addition, they must have LGB individuals who can serve in the military and ban all anti-gay discrimination. They must also have legal documents be amended based on an individual’s recognised gender without the need for surgery or hormone therapy.
The U.K. nearly ticks all of these items, except same-sex marriage is still illegal in Northern Ireland. Same-sex marriage is now legalised in Australia, finally. Apart from some tribal jurisdictions, the U.S. now has legalised marriage but still has some laws that discriminate based on gender identity and expression, as does Australia.
9. Refugee Resettlement Actions
By the end of 2014, one out of every 122 people were internally displaced, a refugee, or seeking asylum, with half of these refugees being children. Wars, persecution and ongoing conflict now mean that we have more people than ever trying to reach safety and begin their new lives in a foreign land, with 59.5 million forcibly displaced in 2014 alone. In addition, due to their proximity to Syria, both Lebanon and Turkey are taking in vast amounts of refugees annually, with 1.59 million Syrian refugees in Turkey at the end of 2014, and more than 25% of Lebanon’s overall population is Syrian as of the 24th of September 2015.
Based on this article, Germany should win gold, Sweden silver and the U.S. bronze. Meanwhile, the recent Brexit scandal was related to the U.K. not wanting to take on as many refugees and immigrants. Australia’s treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, especially the children, is so notoriously bad that China (not always the best for human rights issues) and the United Nations have publicly spoken out against it.
10. Freedom of Press
Based on the 2008 results, Finland and Iceland both get the gold medal, with Denmark and Norway taking home the bronze. The U.S. was 9th best, the U.K.10th, and Australia 13th.
11. Lowest Infant Mortality Rates
According to the 2015 estimates provided by the CIA World Factbook, Monaco wins the gold with 1.81 deaths per 1000 live births, Iceland wins the silver with 2.06, and Norway and Singapore both claim the bronze with 2.48 per 1000 live births. Australia is 31st, with 4.43, the U.K. is 32nd with 4.44, and the U.S. is 50th with 6.17 deaths per 1000 live births.
12. Soundness of Banks
Based on the 2009 World Economic Forum rankings on a scale from 1 (banks need more money) to 7 (banks are generally sound), Canada picks up the gold with a 6.7/7, New Zealand the silver (6.6/7), and Australia the bronze with 6.6/7. The U.S. comes in at 108th with a rating of 4.7/7, and the U.K. is 126th with a score of 3.8/7. Resilient financial systems are crucial for economic stability, and unstable or unregulated systems were the main culprits in the 2008 financial crisis.
13. Unemployment Levels
Based on 2015 figures, Qatar gets gold with 0.4%, Cambodia the silver with 0.5%, and Belarus, according to their 2014 data, get the bronze with 0.7%. By March 2016, Australia’s unemployment rate is 5.8%, slightly worse than its 31st ranking in 2013 with 5.7%. In 2013, the U.K. and U.S. were 44th and 45th with 7.3% each. However, as of July 2016, the U.K. has improved their rate to 4.9%. The U.S. has improved theirs to 5.0% by April 2016.
And the overall winner is Norway!
Final medal tally:
|Country||Gold (3 pts)||Silver (2 pts)||Bronze (1 pt)||Total points|
|China (excl. Hong Kong)||II||I||8|
Australia is doing alright. We aren’t the best country in the world in any of the critical issues that I’ve analysed. Depending on what it is, we could learn a lot from whoever is ahead of us in the rankings, especially Norway and Iceland. This would be much better than always just trying to emulate the U.S. or the U.K. or overreacting to the media every time they catastrophise and tell us that the apocalypse is near.
Worldwide murder rates (per capita) have declined since the fourteenth century, especially since the 1970s. In addition, higher levels of equality and rights have been achieved across the globe for different races, ethnic groups, females, spouses, children, people with disabilities, and animals, with some countries being more progressive than others.
Australia still has a long way to go as a Nation. We could be healthier, including have better mental health, indigenous health and well-being. We could have improved climate change policies, LGBTIQ rights, gender equality, refugee and immigration policies, and other areas where people are mistreated.
At least with the National Broadband System, a higher percentage of the population will have access to a reliable internet connection. It could help more people become better informed, talk about the critical issues through social media, put more pressure on the politicians, and bring about more rapid social change.
I invite you all to speak up, take action, and follow in Mahatma Gandhi’s footsteps in being the change that you wish to see in the world.
Dr Damon Ashworth