The Olympics finish tonight in the UK, and if the 66kg men’s wrestling goes well Japan will equal Australia in gold medals and beat Australia in total medals. Japan has already achieved its best Olympic result for 38 years, and 80% of its current gold medals (5 out of 6) are in combat sports; if it wins tonight, 85% will be in combat sports. Japan doesn’t win medals in the kinds of sports that favour old people. This is contradictory, because Japan’s young population is famously shrinking, and it now is much smaller as a percentage of the population than it was 38 years ago. Furthermore, other competitors – notably China, which dominated in this Olympics – aren’t in the same position, so it’s not the case that Japan’s young population has shrunk less than that of other competitors. Of course, the other country that has had a record Olympics, South Korea, has the lowest birthrate in the world and has been watching the same phenomenon in its 20-35 age group. Yet it came fourth in the medal tally, with a population just under half that of Japan’s. This is its best ever performance, surely, and well above its long term rank (about 10th).

So what’s going on? How can it be that countries like Japan and South Korea can have all-time record performances in a sporting arena that is obviously dominated by the behavior of the 20-35 year age group, even as the size of that age group as a proportion of their own (and the world’s) population is at an all time low? Even when their GDP is being demoted in ranks due to the ascension of China? Surely the first area of a nation’s social and cultural system to collapse will be that which is most closely tied to the size of its youthful population, its performance in elite sport at an international level?

The answer, of course, is technology. As just one example, consider table tennis. Japan selects many of its sports people from the university sports system (its main feeder system outside of the martial arts), and the university system here is undergoing a slow and inevitable collapse as the declining number of new students causes third- and second-tier universities to enter death matches for the remaining students. Yet, Japan achieved its best table tennis result in history, winning a silver in the team event and actually taking a set from China in one competition. When asked how it felt to deliver silver to Japan for the first time in 44 years, Ms. Fukuhara (team leader) collapsed into tears and couldn’t answer, so profound was her achievement. This, despite collapsing numbers in university table tennis clubs across the land … but it turns out, the government has funded a research project to produce machines that replicate Chinese secret ball-spin techniques, and they have been used by this Olympic team. Furthermore, Ms. Fukuhara has been competing in the Chinese super-league since 2008, and speaks fluent Chinese. This is the power of education and technology to utilize dwindling resources more efficiently. Austalia’s swimmers, of course, have been competing well above their population size for years, and are well aware of the power of good training techniques and sports institutions to overcome the effect of small or declining populations.

Another way in which Japan is overcoming its population deficit is through extending the lifespan of athletes. Ms. Fukuhara was recruited early and is seen as a child prodigy; at the other end of the lifespan, Hitomi Obara won Olympic gold in wrestling at the age of 31, and is clearly far from out of competitive power. She had to skip the 2008 Olympics due to injury, but has been dominating in a non-Olympic weight (51 kg) since 2000. This is a 12 year sporting career in an extremely demanding sport. Good rehabilitation medicine and training techniques, and a society that supports a longer range of healthy lifespan, make it possible for athletes to continue to compete long past the age when, in previous eras, they would have been wrecks. Thus it is that Japan completely dominated the wrestling events against countries like the USA, Russia and China with much, much larger populations. This is the effect of technology and organization in more efficiently mobilizing resources.

Japan and South Korea’s Olympic performances are an example of how societies will cope with ageing. Better technology, better education, more efficient systems, better-run institutions, and extensions to the productive lifespan can more than offset population declines. Changes to our understanding of how long people are “young,” when “middle age” starts and what constitutes maturity, will enable us to extend periods of the life cycle (such as those that determine fitness to work or play sport) that were previously seen within quite rigid limitations. As our ability to utilize labour and productive resources increases, we can more than offset the effects of aging. It’s another example of how aging societies are not necessarily a bad thing. If it encourages us to find ways to lengthen our youth, extend our productive life cycles, and enjoy more diverse lifestyles, then the aging of our societies should be seen as an opportunity rather than a purely negative phenomenon. Certainly, Korea and Japan’s response to the challenges of mobilizing youthful resources for the Olympics shows us that we don’t need to go backwards as our societies age – we can use new technologies and training systems to improve on our current situation. Declining populations don’t have to mean declining opportunities or productivity, they can mean diversity and dynamism as well.

The Olympic athletics are mostly done and dusted, and Usain Bolt, having won 100m and 200m gold, has proclaimed himself “the greatest athlete to live.” This status can’t have been earned through sheer numerical power, since on numbers alone Bolt would be well down the medal list – five gold medals at two Olympics is nothing special and certainly can’t eclipse Carl Lewis’s nine gold over four olympics. It can’t be the act of retaining a title over two successive olympics, since Ian Thorpe did that, and in any case it’s not really comparable with sports like Judo where one can only compete in one weight division at one Olympics. By the measure of defending golds in at least one event for which one is eligible to compete, Saori Yoshida and Kaori Icho are far superior – they have defended gold at three olympics and seven and nine world championships respectively, and Kaori Icho has not lost for 150 or more matches. It can’t be through achieving perfection in one’s sport, since Nadia Comaneci did that in 1976 when she scored a perfect 10 (in fact she won seven 10s in total in that olympics). Ms. Comaneci also went on to win five golds, defend her beam performance at the next olympics, is credited with her own special moves, and is the only person ever to receive the Olympic Order twice). It can’t be for being the youngest person to break a record – again, Nadia Comaneci did that and, according to her wikipedia entry, it’s now impossible to legally break that record. Bolt didn’t break any records until he was 21.

I guess gymnastics just isn’t that special. That might explain why Japanese TV insisted on showing the 100m final even though no Japanese person was competing – imagine how little time they would have to showcase Japanese athletes if they had to broadcast the final of every event! In fact they don’t, so it must be that the 100m and 200m are really special.

This confuses me. I don’t understand what’s special about sprinting. It’s obviously impressive and important – like all athletics – but does it compare with any of the other major events in the Olympics? Compare it with synchronized swimming, for example, which is a genuinely impressive sport in which great talent is combined with challenging physical technique as well as artistic merit. Could Usain Bolt sprint in perfect lockstep with the rest of his Jamaican team? Could he do push-ups while holding his breath? Could he hoist one of his other team members into the air for a perfect backflip with a peg on his nose after doing hold-your-breath push-ups for 30 seconds? Come to think of it, could he even complete a 100m race while maintaining a perfectly fixed smile? Synchronized swimming often gets a bum rap, but if you look past the rigid smiles and scary make up, it’s actually a sport that requires amazing talent, focus and attention to detail, and the women who do it obviously have impressive backgrounds in swimming, ballet and gymnastics.

So what is so special about sprinting? Putting aside for the moment the fact that all of these sports are a complete waste of time and space, is there anything about sprinting that makes it different to weight-lifting, hammer-throwing or the marathon? Do you have to do it from childhood, like gymnastics? Does it require skills from multiple disciplines, like rhythmic gymnastics and synchronized swimming? Is there a risk of death if you do it wrong, as in diving, gymnastics or horse-riding? Does it require a special and intense team spirit to complete even the simplest of moves, like volleyball?

I think the Daily Mash puts Bolt’s achievement into a little more historical perspective:

Helen Archer, from Stevenage, added: “Usain Bolt just ‘practices’ running every day and, one assumes, eats a lot of macaroni and stays off the tabs.

“Perhaps the Pope should commission a new ceiling from him. Let’s see what that does to his ego.

“Once he’s finished, perhaps he could point at it in his trademark style.”

I think that puts Bolt’s “legend” status into a little perspective. Imagine if Einstein, receiving his Nobel prize in 1921, had said “I’m the greatest scientist to live.” Even rock stars tend to eschew this kind of stupidity. Freddie Mercury just said “I always knew I was a star,” but he never managed to get to the point of observing the obvious truth, that he was the greatest performer ever to live.

It’s probably a reasonable truism to live by, that if what you’re about to say outstrips Freddie Mercury, Oscar Wilde and Mohammed Ali in its arrogance, you shouldn’t say it. I’ll give you that tip for nothing, Usain Bolt. In exchange, could you tell me why I should value sprinting more than synchronized swimming?

I’ve been enjoying the Olympics from the vantage point of my air-conditioned couch, and because I’m in Japan I’m getting to see only the sports that interest Japanese viewers, so at the moment it’s wall-to-wall Judo and swimming. Of course, having something of a soft spot for China I’m quite happy to see them coming up in the world of olympic sports, and this year’s sensation is Ye Shiwen, the 16 year old swimmer whose performance has sparked controversy. An American high up in swimming circles claims she must be a drug cheat, because not only did she beat a man in one leg of her medley (and not just any man – an American man), her times have improved rapidly in just a year or two, and her freestyle leg was just so much faster than her other legs.

Of course this has pissed off the Chinese delegation and Chinese media no end, though to her credit Ye Shiwen has responded in a level-headed manner both in and out of the pool. But she might be surprised to hear that she has found some strong defenders in the Australian press. The Sydney Morning Herald has an article disputing all the main claims of the American coach, and suggesting that both Australian and American achievers could be accused of drug cheating if judged on their performance alone. About Ms. Ye swimming faster than an American man (Lochte) in her freestyle leg, he points out that she didn’t actually beat his medley speed overall, and in any case four other men in Lochte’s race did beat Ye’s time in the same leg – they were all swimming their hearts out to catch up with Lochte, which is what Ye had to do in her freestyle leg to catch the leader.

John Leonard’s other big complaint is that Ye shaved five seconds off her previous best at this Olympics. The Herald’s article tears this complaint apart:

It wasn’t an insinuation Rice had to deal with when she clocked her world record in 2008, which was at the time an absurdly fast result.

Earlier that year, Rice shaved a startling six seconds off her personal best time to hit 4.31.46 at the Australian trials. American Katie Hoff reclaimed the mark a few months late before Rice countered at the Beijing Games, reducing it to below 4.30 for the first time. In contrast, people seized on the fact Ye reduced her PB by five seconds to claim the new mark of 4.28.43 as genuine grounds for suspicion.

The article also points out that Leonard’s comparison of Ye’s times now with two years ago are unfair because of Ye’s age:

To the wider sporting world, Ye is only now becoming a notable name. Yet to swimming diehards, she has been one of the rising stars for some years, even if her surge of form in London has caught most people by surprise. Beisel and Rice had been the favourites for gold.

Ye won the 200m IM at the Asian Games in 2010 (2.09.37) and the 400m IM (4.33.79), all at age 14. At the time, she was listed at 160cm tall. Now, the official Olympic site lists her 12 cm loftier at 172cm. That sort of difference in height, length of stroke and size of hand leads to warp-speed improvement.

To me these paragraphs also contain an insinuation of bad faith against Leonards: he clearly, as a swimming insider, knows that Ye’s times have grown with her age and body size, and should be aware of her history. So why is he making the complaints so openly now? Would he be happy to have them made against Michael Phelps or Stephanie Rice when they started their careers? Is it fair on Ye that her improvement should be immediately slated home to drugs? The accusations have already hit home, with the doping committee making an unprecedented release of her pre-olympic drug testing results to calm the waters, but it’s probably the case that the claims won’t die down.
I think that she’s probably not a drug cheat (or if she is, she’s doing the same undetectable cheating as everyone else) and Leonards and others who insinuate that she is are well aware that her performance is natural. But these people are watching their nation’s long-standing dominance of this sport sliding out of their grip as China’s performance improves. There are also insinuations of “military-style training camps” (always a marker of repression when they do it, but of efficiency when we do it), tightly-controlled sporting worlds, etc. But in fact the Chinese swimming world is quite open and employs foreign coaches, one of whom wrote an illuminating opinion piece for the Guardian, indicating exactly why China is improving its performances so fast: hard work. This coach writes:

Chinese athletes train incredibly hard, harder than I can explain in words and as a coach who has placed swimmers on five different Olympic Games teams, I have never seen athletes train like this anywhere in the world.

They have an unrelenting appetite for hard work, can (and will) endure more pain for longer than their western counterparts, will guarantee to turn up for practice every single time and give their all. They are very proud of their country, they are proud to represent China and have a very team focused mentality.

He adds that there is no special talent selection program, but that he just selects those players he sees and thinks are good. But he gives an interesting insight into the supposedly centrally-managed, state mandated programs that are always painted in such a negative light when they compete with Western athletics – in fact, like so much of Chinese “communism” they’re probably more free market than those in the West:

Let’s also not forget that this is their only avenue for income; most do not study and sport offers them a way out or a way up from where they and their families currently live in society. If their swimming fails, they fail and the family loses face … my athletes are salaried and receive bonuses for performance; I am salaried and receive bonuses for performance. We all want performance, not mediocrity, not sport for all, but gold medals – and they are not afraid to say this.

He also observes that China gives him all the funding he needs, and enormous freedom to manage his coaching programs:

If I want a foreign training camp, money is available; if I want high-altitude training – money is available; if I want an assistant coach – money is available; if I want some new gadgets or training equipment, guess what? Money is available.

I think this is the real threat that people like Leonards are worried about. As China becomes wealthy, it is pouring money into playing catch up not just industrially and economically, but in the cultural and scientific pursuits that have traditionally marked out the west as “advanced,” on the assumption that fast development in these areas will lead to results that will challenge western cultural hegemony. They don’t want to be pinned down to traditionally “Asian” sports that often have lower value (ping-pong, badminton, the traditional martial arts) but want to compete in areas that, by being traditionally western strongholds, often have higher cultural value attached to them: swimming, basketball, soccer and gymnastics. And by dint of their combination of rapid economic growth, rampant nationalism, and highly successful mix of central planning and free market ideas, they’re going to catch up fast. The doyens of a previous era of cultural and sporting superiority don’t want to accept it, just as a previous generation of industrialists couldn’t accept Japanese superiority in industry, and a previous generation of military planners couldn’t believe Japanese naval and air superiority.

As China continues to improve its sporting prowess, I think we’ll see more of the same, allied at times with accusations of cheating and corruption. But I think, given the sour grapes China’s growth is producing in many areas in the west, we should approach many claims about their sports programs and sportspeople with a great deal of cynicism and caution.