Medaling at the Olympics: Is Corruption the Golden Ticket?

A Guest post from my friend and colleague at Emory – Tom Smith!

by Thomas More Smith

Even before the Olympic flame in Rio was lit, there were significant concerns regarding doping and competitive balance. In June, 2016, the IAFF banned the Russian athletic team (those competing in track-and-field events) from the Rio Olympics after Russia failed to show it had made progress in light of the World Anti-Doping Agency’s report on state sponsored doping by Russia. After a considerable amount of concern and angst by Russian Olympians, the IOC decided not to ban the entire Olympic squad.

The issue of fair-play at the Rio Olympics has been front and center since the opening ceremonies. There is clearly some bad blood between competitors in the Olympic swimming events. At a press conference on Monday, August 9, Lilly King, the U.S. swimmer and Gold medalist of the 100-meter breast stroke, made pointed remarks about the Russian Silver medalist, Yuli Efimova, who was, until several weeks ago, banned from Olympic competition because of positive drug tests.  The Gold medalist of the men’s 200-meter freestyle even, Sun Yang, was the subject of testy comments from Camille Lacourt, who took fifth in the event. Lacourt suggested his Chinese competitor “pisses purple” in reference Sun’s failed drug test several years ago.

In both of these situations, athletes who had at one time been found to have taken PEDs were standing on the medal podium. Are these athletes clean now and will their medals stand? In 2012, Nadzeya Ostapchuk from Belarus won the Gold medal in women’s shot put. The IOC subsequently withdrew her medal and her standing after she tested positive for anabolic steroids.  Other athletes at the 2012 games and 2008 and 2004 games were stripped of their medals after they tested positive for various PEDs.

This leads to an interesting question – do dirty athletes win more medals? Or, perhaps, do athletes from “dirty” programs or countries win more medals?

How Much Advantage do PEDs Provide?

There is no data on athletes currently taking PEDs – we only know about the athletes that have taken PEDs and eventually tested positive for them. Also, we can suspect that some athletes did or didn’t take PEDs during the Olympics but we don’t really know unless they were tested and the results were positive. Still, some athletes have been able to avoid positive tests for years because of the drugs, testing facilities or advanced systems in place to mask the drugs (see, for example, Lance Armstrong.) As such, it is a little tricky to test the relationship between PED use and performance in sporting events. However, we can examine the relationship between Olympic performance and the perceived level of corruption of the country of the athlete – what I will call the “dirty” country hypothesis.

H0: Athletes from countries with more corruption are more likely to win Olympic medals.

Perceived Level of Corruption

The organization Transparency International compiles a corruption perception index tracking the level of perceived corruption by country and by year. The Corruption Perceptions Index scores countries on a scale from 0 (highly corrupt) to 100 (very clean). No county has a perfect score (100); the top four countries of Denmark, Finland, New Zealand and Sweden regularly score between 82 and 92. Nearly two-thirds of the 170 countries identified by Transparency International score below 50.

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Data: Transparency International and ESPN

Using data from the 2012 Olympics, I ran a correlation plot of the total Olympic medal count and the Corruption Perception Index (CPI) for each country with 10 or more total medals.  The plot of the total medal count for each country relative to the Country’s CPI is shown in the figure above. We can see that New Zealand, for example, is perceived as very un-corrupt (Index = 90) but also has a low medal count (13), while Russia has a much higher perceived level of corruption (index = 27) and a high medal count (79). The plot of the best-fit line shows a positive correlation. That is, although Russia and China have high medal counts and high levels of perceived corruption, the overall trend suggests that countries with less perceived corruption tend to also perform better at the Olympics.

Although it looks like some countries do poorly because of corruption, this may not be the case. Of course, correlation does not mean causation. In addition, this plot does not take into consideration the size of the Olympic team. Azerbaijan, for example, had 10 medals in the 2012 Olympics and had a PCI of 27. But, Azerbaijan only sent 53 athletes to the Olympics — a considerably smaller team than Ukraine, which had 19 medals, a PCI of 26 and 237 athletes. So, perhaps the countries with higher perceived corruption might have performed better at the Olympics if they had sent more athletes. When the medal count is adjusted for team size (Total Medals / Total Athletes) and plotted against the PCI, we get the figure below.

smith_fig2

Data: Transparency International and ESPN

In this figure, the correlation has reversed– countries with higher perceived corruption also have higher level of medals per athlete in general. When accounting for the size of the team, countries such as Kenya and Azerbaijan tend to do pretty well (as does China and Russia). The United States still performs well, but does not have as high a medal per athlete count as China or Kenya.

What does this mean?

It is unwise to use figures like this to suggest that the Kenya Olympic team are full of drug cheats or that the Chinese team is engaged in dubious behavior. It’s also unwise to suggest the United States has completely clean athletes (we know, for a fact, that this is not the case!) But, given that there are seemingly strong correlations between perceived corruption and Olympic performance, it is understandable that some athletes would be vocal about the behavior of the person in the next lane based on the country the athlete is playing for.

Amateur Sports and Brands

HBO Sports recently created a detailed report on the IOC.  The RIO Olympics do not come off well.  Pollution, doping, corruption and athlete exploitation are at the top of the list.  It is a fascinating story that seems to play out with each Olympic Games.

This issue of fair compensation for the athletes is high on the list. The number discussed in the report was $4 billion.  The question is whether and how this money from rights fees and sponsors should be allocated to the athletes.  Is (and should) there be an Olympic Ed O’Bannon?

In many respects this starts to sound like the debates about college sports in the US.  These debates are usually cast in terms of fairness.   to the athletes versus arguments about the purity of the sport or appropriateness of academic institutions running pro teams.

These debates are at best incomplete without considering the role of marketing and brands.  While college football players supply the product, the brands owned by the colleges or the Olympics is what drives fan interest.  Leonard Fournette is a Heisman favorite and a huge star.  But does he draw fans to LSU.  the truth is he probably doesn’t (in the short-term).  In the long-term its stars like Fournette that create the brand equity. 

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Likewise, in the case of the Olympics – we could ask how much interest in driven by the current athletes?  and how much is driven by the attachment people have to the Olympics (the brand).

carllewis

I think (in the US) the Olympic brand is about Carl Lewis, Bruce Jenner, Mary Lou Retton, Jesse Owens, Cassius Clay or many others.  It remains to be seen who from the current crop breaks out.

The real problem, I believe is one of equity.  This is true in both college sports and the Olympics.  The fundamental issue is who gets to harvest the value of the brands.  The problem – to many folks – is that this seems to just end up being the people that control the institutions at any one moment.  The athletes that have built the brands (the stars of the past) and the athletes that create the product (this years athletes) tend to get left out in the cold.