August 15, 2012

India > Finland in Olympic medals

I have been pointing out since 2000 that India has been terrible at winning Olympic medals, and this seems to have been the first year that that idea has penetrated the general media consciousness. 

On the other hand, India is improving, from one medal per Olympics to a half dozen this year. In contrast, Finland, a former Olympic superpower, has fallen off a cliff from their glory days, down to three medals, none gold, this year. 

It's hard to overstate how good Finland, despite its small population and near poverty, was at the Olympics from 1912 (when it was still a part of the Russian empire) up through 1956. It finished second in total medals at the well-attended 1924 Paris Olympics and was regularly in the top half dozen countries. They have a total of 300 medals in the Summer Olympics (and 151 in the Winter Olympics), and after the 2008 games one web page calculated they were tops all time in medals per capita. (This kind of calculation is sensitive to where you draw the bottom cutoff to keep out, say, very small countries with a single medal.)

The Finns pretty much invented "scientific" running: Paavo Nurmi was famous for running, no matter what the opposition was doing, with a stopwatch in his hand at whatever pace he'd calculated would win. Then, on the last lap, he's toss the stopwatch on the infield grass and sprint to gold. He'd then stroll over and pick up his stopwatch and go get ready for the next event he'd win.

This national obsession with fitness helped Finland avoid complete conquest by the Soviets in the 1939-40 Winter War, which was largely an aerobically-exhausting fight of infantry in thick snow. When people talk about how awful nationalism is in the Olympics, I'd respond by pointing to Finnish nationalism. Finland is a peaceful and prosperous nation that has only been independent for 95 years. Their remarkable record in the Olympics when a new country probably helped build national unity. 

But, in 1960, their medal haul dropped into the single digits, only climbing above that in the boycotted 1984 games. A non-Finn reader speculates: 
My guess is that they are not a country with much sports diversity. Previously (until 1936) they were a superpower in T&F, especially in middle and long distance and javelin. In middle and long distance running, the east africans came and ate their lunch. They had no male javelin finalist this year, while Kenya, of all places, had one. He had trained a lot in Finland, though. A look at the wiki page of Finnish medalists since 1992 shows that most of those have medaled in old sports. In recent years, the games have diversified a lot by adding a lot of new events, but Finland has not helped itself to those opportunities, by and large. The 2nd most medaling sport for Finland is wrestling, but there they have been losing out to a growing importance of countries in the area that formerly was covered by either the old Persian Empire or Ottoman Empire.

The common theme of those events is that it is easy - conceptually - to dope for them, and Finland is probably not willing to compete in that regard.

The last superstar Olympic Finn was distance runner Lasse Viren in the 1970s who was subject to numerous allegations that he would have some of his blood stored during the off-season then would get topped off with a pint or two right before the Olympics.
Also, none of those sports pay anything unless you reach Olympic medalist status, and not all that much even then. Until the 60ies, when a lot of Finns were poor, it made sense to train hard in the off chance that the training provided a way out of the cold farm. Look at Michigan upper peninsula - a lot of finns emigrated there, and it is the only place in USA where finns dominate. It is also a cold place, and the agricultural land is not bountiful. Now, Finland itself is to a great part even bleaker. Do a google pic search of Finland before 1960. Now, Finland has undergone a huge economic leap forward, so it makes more sense to study for getting into Nokia rather than to escape the farm. That economic logic is not there for a Kenyan runner or Taijik wrestler.

Finland would do well by following the British lead. GB had their best games. medal-wise, since 1908. GB performed exceedingly well in Equestrian, rowing, and a few other sports. The commong thing about those 2 sports is that they cost quite a bit to compete in, so there are significant barriers which limit competition from poorer countries.

Finland has the sports mix of a poor country, with a 5 million population, and rich people. That is not a good combination if one wants to amass a lot of medals.

So, my guess is that modern Finns are too rich to go in all out for poor man's sports and too recently poor to think it a great idea to spend a lot of tax or charitable money on piling up medals in rich man's sports.

36 comments:

Paavo said...

Track and Field used to be the measuring stick for manliness in Finland. Nowadays it's just for geeks. Throwing the javelin the furthest used to make you the hottest guy around in the town, but today it's like winning the local chess tournament. No one cares.

Being a musician or a reality tv star is much more rewarding for young westerners. If olympic sports had the pool of wannabes to choose from that music industry or reality tv has I bet that Finland could do a lot better in Olympics.

Anonymous said...

Finnish school kids do well, though. In fact, they beat all the other Europeans on the international standardized tests and finished neck and neck with the East Asians.

Anonymous said...

.This national obsession with fitness helped Finland avoid complete conquest by the Soviets in the 1939-40 Winter War,
this is what sport SHOULD be, not hyper consumerism/jock sniffing/bread and circuses/timewaster as is the case with American football.

hbd chick said...

the finns don't win so many medals in the olympics nowadays 'cause the ioc has yet to add wife carrying to the events. just you wait! (^_^)

Anonymous said...

The Finns lost a particular gold medal match in Ice Hockey in 1980

---Scales Fall

Anonymous said...

I'll say this much for the Finns. Even their super-duper-jocks are nerds.

Anonymous said...

Finns are beta.

Steve Sailer said...

That's what Stalin thought in 1939.

Anonymous said...

Have the Finns decided to put all their efforts into the winter games?

Steve Sailer said...

Finns are beta.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simo_H%C3%A4yh%C3%A4

Anonymous said...

That's what Stalin thought in 1939.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simo_H%C3%A4yh%C3%A4


Beta male rage. Being beta doesn't mean being bad at war and killing.

Anonymous said...

Nokia isn't doing so well since Apple came along and drank their milkshake.

Anonymous said...

Nokia isn't doing so well since Apple came along and drank their milkshake.

Yeah Nokias used to dominate for a few years. They were everywhere and then gradually disappeared.

Anonymous said...

Nokia isn't doing so well since Apple came along and drank their milkshake.

Nokia's stock price was around $40 in 2007. It's around $2.65 now.

I wonder if this would be a good buying opportunity for the stock. Finns are very smart and reliable people. On the other hand, this kind of thing is really unpredictable despite the fairly solid nature of HBD facts.

Anonymous said...

"I wonder if this would be a good buying opportunity for the stock. Finns are very smart and reliable people. On the other hand, this kind of thing is really unpredictable despite the fairly solid nature of HBD facts."

Almost every single Western consumer electronics company has been driven out of business by the East Asians. MSFT and Apple are both big into contract manufacturing.

Anonymous said...

Almost every single Western consumer electronics company has been driven out of business by the East Asians. MSFT and Apple are both big into contract manufacturing.

Nokia's phones didn't decline due to Asian phones though. Japanese phones don't sell in the US. There is Samsung but they didn't really out sell Nokia. It was Apple and Blackberry.

Anonymous said...

"Almost every single Western consumer electronics company has been driven out of business by the East Asians. MSFT and Apple are both big into contract manufacturing."

And Google.

Thanks to east asian efficiency and competitiveness we can buy excellent smartphones for $0 with contract; excellent tablets for less than $200; 32" LCD TVs for $250 etc.

This is good for the world.

Anonymous said...

Finns are betta.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure if Apple is the main Nokia killer. Chinese Hwawei probably took the most business.

Volksverhetzer said...

Scandinavian dominance in mobile technology grew out of the NordicMobileTech-system in the 1980ies.

Norway lost it's mobile phone firm almost at once, due to the new intra Scandinavian competition, and the Danes had theirs bought up by Americans.

The Swedes and the Finns kept theirs, and Erikson and Nokia was central in developing the GSM-system. The long term consequence was that Erikson and Nokia became huge, as there wasn't really any competition.

When the rest of the world caught on,Erikson and Nokia was doomed to fail, just like Norway and Denmark was unable to compete with the Swedes and the Finns during the NMT era.

In the long run, Norway and Denmark got lucky, and loosing Nokia might for the same reason show itself to be an advantage, as the Nokia-engineers is freed up to pursue something more profitable.

Anonymous said...

You've got to remember that Finland is only a small country of 5 million or so inhabitants. once the 'big boy' nations such as the USA started putting a lot of national organizational effort, money and coaching into sports, by the law of big numbers itself, Finland was screwed.
The case of Britain is intersting. Basically a 'national lottery' - ie a state run gambling monopoly that actually pays out a tiny proportion of stake money as prizes - was instituted in 1994. Revenues from it have been huge. Stake money is creamed off in huge drabs and aspring atheletes in Britain (which since humiliating Olympics in the '90s has used careful planning and strategy to win medals)are paid a actual wage from lottery funds - a wage considerably above median earnings. This coupled with intensive coaching and sporting facilities.

TH said...

This national obsession with fitness helped Finland avoid complete conquest by the Soviets in the 1939-40 Winter War, which was largely an aerobically-exhausting fight of infantry in thick snow. When people talk about how awful nationalism is in the Olympics, I'd respond by pointing to Finnish nationalism.

Finland was extremely nationalistic in general in the interwar period. It's instructive to compare Finland to the Baltic republics (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) that surrendered to the Soviets without a fight because they were so internally divided. Finland, too, was politically divided as a result of the Civil War of 1918 -- for example, in sports there was a strict ideological division between "working class" and "bourgeois" teams -- but by the Winter War (1939-40) the nationalist ideology had permeated society to the extent that there were almost no defections even though a substantial proportion of the population were nominally communists.

Incidentally, ten Finnish Olympic medalists were killed on the front in WW2.

They had no male javelin finalist this year, while Kenya, of all places, had one.

Actually, all three male javelin throwers from Finland reached the final, and one of them won bronze.

The common theme of those events is that it is easy - conceptually - to dope for them, and Finland is probably not willing to compete in that regard.

It's not that Finnish athletes are more averse to doping, it's just that Finnish anti-doping control is probably one of the most thorough in the world. This is especially since a huge scandal about ten years ago in Nordic World Ski Championships, held in Finland, where most of the Finnish cross-country team was caught doping. (They were using a blood volume expander that they mistakenly thought was permissible, apparently to cover up EPO use.)

Finland has the sports mix of a poor country, with a 5 million population, and rich people. That is not a good combination if one wants to amass a lot of medals.

Two of the three medals Finland got in London were from sailing events.

Finns have in general got much less athletic over the years. A good metric is the Cooper test that each male cohort takes when conscripted (yes, there's still conscription in Finland). In 1987, the average conscript ran 2713 meters in 12 minutes, now the average is 2481 meters. I don't have figures from the 1970s, the last great period of Finnish distance running, but they were probably better than in 1987.

Another thing is that team sports, particularly ice hockey but also internationally obscure sports like floorball, have become much more popular than track & field and other individual sports.

Steve Sailer said...

"Incidentally, ten Finnish Olympic medalists were killed on the front in WW2"

Wow. Only two American major league baseball players were killed in WWII and they had only four games between them. One better known big leaguer was killed in WWI, and the Hall of Famer Christy Mathewson eventually died from being gassed in a training accident just after the end of WWI.

TH said...

The best known Finnish athlete killed in WW2 was probably Gunnar Höckert who won 5000m in Berlin Olympics (1936).

Matias F. said...

Formula One and World Rally Championship are two rich man's sports where Finns are over-represented, but they are not featured in the Olympics. The best drivers are household names. Mika Häkkinen is probably the best known Finnish "athlete" of the last 20 years. But, as you say, driving is not done on tax or charitable money. Sailing or shooting would probably be the best bets if the Finnish state decided to spend a lot of money on gaining Olympic medals.

Graham Asher said...

Anonymous said that the UK National lottery "pays out a tiny proportion of stake money as prizes". Only true if you think 50% is a tiny proportion.

In fact (source: Wikipedia): "Of every pound (£) spent on National Lottery games, 50 pence (p) goes to the prize fund, 28p to 'good causes' as set out by Parliament (though some of this is considered by some to be a stealth tax[3] levied to support the Big Lottery Fund, a fund constituted to support public spending[4]), 12p to the UK Government as duty and 5p to retailers as commission, while Camelot receives 4.5p to cover operating costs and 0.5p profit."

FWG said...

As an American with Finnish lineage, thank you for this article.

I have the Nokia Lumia 900. My first smart phone, and it works for me.

Anonymous said...

"In 1987, the average conscript ran 2713 meters in 12 minutes, now the average is 2481 meters."

Didn't the "young men today have less testosterone than their fathers" meme had one study from the finnish army?

Anonymous said...

Fins didn't just settle in Michigan's U.P., there is a notable population in northern Minnesota (Duluth and the iron range). Equally bleak with poor prospects for agriculture.

Finns said...

The Finns have a hardluck history few know about.

Like Korea, Poland, etc - they have been historically victims of poor geography between much larger powers.

While everyone know of the Great Irish Potato famine that killed about 10% of the population 1845-1849, hardly anyone knows of the last great European famine 2 decades later 1866-68 in Finland that killed 15% of the population.

Finland also had one of Europe's greatest single famine in 1796-1797 losing upto 1/3 of the population.

pat said...

When people talk about how awful nationalism is in the Olympics ...

That people would be me, I suppose. My argument is simple and, I believe, irrefutable. The Olympics are promoted as a means to promote peace, fellow feeling, and international understanding. But it does just the opposite.

The Olympics are corrupt. The judges cheat and the participants cheat.

National sports are largely pure and scandal free. The Black Sox scandal is almost a century old now. Umpires just don't get locked up for fixing games. Basketball refrees are not very often involved in point shaving scandals.

But no one trusts Olympic officials. We expect bad officiating. If in organized US baseball the black umpires organized to favor black players it would be comparable. But no one thinks that blacks get a bigger strike zone at the plate or the benefit of the doubt in close plays at first. Democrats hate Republicans certainly but no one thinks that matters in the ball park.

All of these racial and political preferences and bias effect officiating in the Olympics. The contrast is stark.

Albertosaurus

irishman said...

"Finns said...
The Finns have a hardluck history few know about.

Like Korea, Poland, etc - they have been historically victims of poor geography between much larger powers.

While everyone know of the Great Irish Potato famine that killed about 10% of the population 1845-1849, hardly anyone knows of the last great European famine 2 decades later 1866-68 in Finland that killed 15% of the population.

Finland also had one of Europe's greatest single famine in 1796-1797 losing upto 1/3 of the population.

8/16/12 12:03 PM"

I majored in history in an Irish university. The death toll in the famine vary but I was told by my conservative(read anglophilic) professor that the death toll was at least one in eight.

The reason Irish history and culture has had such an outsized impact is that we:

A. Stayed in the cities when we got to America. We never liked farming. We only did it because the Engish used penal laws from doing anything else.

B. Were very political, English speaking and tribal. All of which we have to thank the English for.

Finns on the other hand went to the northern peninsula of Michigan of all places. Up there, no-one will here you scream.

Anonymous said...

Hey Steve,

This may be off topic, but the news that India government decided to back out of PISA 2012 test. This is a very interesting news since i think this is the first time a country withdraw from it.

Link: http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2012-08-03/mumbai/33019239_1_india-backs-global-stage-math-and-science

Uncle Peregrine said...

I always wonder if ECHELON made telecommunications companies from neutral countries more attractive to non-anglophone countries.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ECHELON

Uncle Peregrine said...

If the Soviet Union were still a country it would be the winner by far:

Russia 24 26 32 82
Ukraine 6 5 9 20
Kazakhstan 7 1 5 13
Belarus 2 5 5 12
Azerbaijan 2 2 6 10
Georgia 1 3 3 7
Lithuania 2 1 2 5
Uzbekistan 1 0 3 4
Armenia 0 1 2 3
Latvia 1 0 1 2
Estonia 0 1 1 2
Moldova 0 0 2 2
Tajikistan 0 0 1 1
46 45 72 163

Post Soviet citizens are poor enough to be motivated to get the Olympic glory, the economy has recovered enough to fund some institutions and the traditions are there. Only Turkmenistan and Kyrgizstan didn't get in on the act.

Dutch Boy said...

Or perhaps too ethical to go the doping route?