U.S. Sport System Fails at Olympics: Lessons for Squash Coaches & Administrators

In a previous post I highlighted the importance of not simply copying the coaching and training of “winners” or #1 ranked teams or athletes, but instead advocated a more scientific and logic-based approach to coaching and training our athletes. As the 2008 Beijing Olympics draw to a close, we can look at the current data that support this approach. Although squash is not an Olympic sport (on the short list for 2016), the conclusions of this analysis can have implications for squash.

Olympic Medal Count - Aug. 23, 2008

Olympic Medal Count - Aug. 23, 2008

Looking at graphs of the Olympic medal count and economic data, the picture seems clear – a “level playing field” does not in fact exist at the Olympics – the richer the country, the better it will do. Better food, better facilities, more money for athletes – these things have at the same time a lot to do with, and very little to do with actually being better at sport. If we want to get better at a sport, whom should we emulate – the team that ends up in first place, or the teams that perform much better than they should?

Although the U.S. leads the overall Olympic medal count, when we examine economic data such as GNP and GDP we see that they should in fact be well ahead of all other competitors, since there appears to be a clear and direct relationship between economic resources and number of medals won at the Olympics.

World Ranking Gross National Product (GNP) 2005

World Ranking Gross National Product (GNP) 2005

To examine this relationship, I used Excel to perform a correlation analysis on the current medal count and the country’s 2007 GDP (similar to the 2005 GNP in the Table above), and got a correlation coefficient of .43, which considering the complexity of the variables involved, suggests a meaningful relationship. Although the overall data support the economic wealth-Olympic success hypothesis, examination of the raw data can lead to some interesting directions.

Correlation of 2008 Medal Count with 2007 GDP

Correlation of 2008 Medal Count with 2007 GDP

The most striking figures on this chart are of course those of Cuba and Jamaica. I (guiltily) have taught squash and tennis on all-inclusive, luxury resorts in both countries, and can assure you that both countries are in fact beautiful – but very poor. As an aside, I think the Cuban success against the U.S. teams in this Olympics is ironic considering the hypocritical economic embargo against Cuba for totalitarianism while the U.S. detains people without trial within Cuba itself. Politics aside, how can these countries have such success with so few resources? Here are the real Olympic rankings at the start of the final day, when you divide the number of medals won by the country’s 2007 GDP:

A parallel situation exists in squash where we have the two small GDP countries of Egypt (GDP #52) and Pakistan (GDP #46), outperforming both squash giants Britain (GDP #5) and Australia (GDP #15) in current World Championships: Egypt Jr. Women 2003, Pakistan Jr. Men. 2008; and on the pro tours several Egyptian men being near the top of the PSA Tour since 2000, and the recent success of the Egyptian women.

If in fact availability of money is not the primary determinant of athletic success – what are the critical factors?

  • Culture is obviously a very important one – the “cultural” importance of a particular sport – although this does not seem to have helped the English out in World Cup soccer;)
  • Sport system spending – the most notable examples being China and the UK having increased their spending exponentially due to Olympic hosting. Although less rich, Australia was one of the first Western countries to invest in a comprehensive sport training and coaching network.
  • Professionalization of coaching – the most successful countries are the Eastern Bloc-influenced (China, Russia, Cuba, etc.) countries with sport science trained coaches.

Sometimes these factors can combine – look at the women’s tennis rankings – the daughters of former Eastern Bloc parents are decimating their opponents with a culturally high work ethic and career supervision by parents who were either high level sports people (who were all educated from an early age to plan their own training) or physical education teachers and coaches.

What is the U.S. doing wrong?

  • Cultural overemphasis on professional sports such as football and basketball;
  • Use of colleges (versus a club system) to develop athletes;
  • NCAA Colleges’ use of a “pro’ model to train athletes – too short, overly intense seasons with too much competition that result in high burnout and injury rates, leaving no time for athlete development;
  • Over-reliance on the “ex-player” as coach model – lack of certified coaching programs or sport science trained coaches;
  • Cultural overemphasis on short term winning and being #1 versus long term athlete development (LTAD).

I wrote this post, “risking biting the hand that feeds me”, in response to the media hype and TV coverage around Michael Phelps and the U.S. women’s Beach Volleyball (most of the time I spent watching badminton and table tennis). Brevity has necessitated presenting this analysis in an oversimplified fashion, but squash can learn from the results at the Olympics, and we are still small enough to change our ways.

3 Responses to U.S. Sport System Fails at Olympics: Lessons for Squash Coaches & Administrators

  1. […] is it possible that that a “poor” third world country like Egypt can overcome a great financial squash power like Great Britain, and is it possible for others to do […]

  2. […] related money that is put into player development (more than any other country).  You can read this post to explore the economics of developing […]

  3. […] development, organizational infrastructure – even mass participation – makes the the world of sport in the U.S. look like an impoverished wasteland – which it is. This increase in resources will be […]

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