Where To For Our Olympics

Now the Games of the XXX Olympiad (that’s London 2012 Olympics for us mere mortals) have come to a close, there will be much hand-wringing, soul-searching and other colourful metaphors used within the offices of the Australian Olympic Committee. The AOC forecast fifteen Gold Medals for Australia at this Olympics, not quite the seven we actually received, and at times we ranked on the Gold Medal Tally behind well-known Olympic super-powers like Cuba and New Zealand (g’day neighbours!). This is not to say that our athletes didn’t perform well, that it’s only about bringing home The Gold, or that I could somehow qualify for more than sweat-wiping duty of athletes at the games. However, the AOC is all about exchanging cash for gold and they will now be looking for more cash given that there will be a demand for more gold.

In some ways, it’s an Australian success story. The Australian Institute of Sport was established in 1980, four years after our zero-gold result at the Montreal Olympics. In the years that followed, Australia averaged more than nine gold per Summer games (including London 2012). What is sometimes overlooked is that this has been a scientific triumph as much as a sporting one. While it is the athletes standing on the podium receiving the medals for all to see, it would be justified to also see up there the army of sports scientists and specialists in sports medicine standing there that Australia has willed into being to create our international success. It is probably the Australian scientific organisation with the most influence on the international scene in recent years, but it’s disguised as sport to keep the masses happy. Thanks to the AIS, a country of around 20 million people was able to rank fourth at the Olympics as recently as 2004.

But eventually the limitations of our population size and ability to fund elite sport was going to catch up with us. We had a temporary advantage due to the skills and knowledge in the AIS and the system around it, but information wants to be free. Australian coaches, scientists and even athletes are now helping out other nations. Even Australia’s first individual gold medalist at the London 2012 games, Tom Slingsby, wasted little time after the games to head to the US to help the team defend their America’s Cup title. This is not a slight on the patriotism of those individuals, but recognition that information advantages last for only so long. We now need to find another approach to win a disproportionate share of the Olympic gold.

Our new competitive advantage could be our women. While women made up 46% of the Australian team, wins in their sports accounted for 57% of our Olympic medals (note also that only 46% of the opportunities for a medal are eligible to women). Our first gold medal of these games was from women, and it stood as the only one for nine days. However, while wins in women’s events were responsible for 57% of the medals, they were responsible for only 43% of the gold. Something is not quite right.

Even before the games started, there was some contention that Australia’s female athletes were treated differently from the male athletes. Media reports revealed our women’s basketball team flew to London in economy class while the men’s team flew business. This may be just be the rumblings of a couple of disgruntled athletes, but let’s see if there are some stats that could shine some light on a systemic difference between the men’s and women’s performance at the games.

Despite winning more medals, our team’s women’s medals converted to gold less often than the men’s medals in London. Just 15% of the women’s medals were gold, while 27% of the men’s medals were gold. This difference of 12% between their ability to convert medals to gold, despite coming from the same country, being selected by the same process, and being supported by the same institutions, turns out to be pretty poor compared with other nations. The following table compares all countries who won at least a dozen medals (just so we can have some level of statistical validity):

Rank Country Womens Gold Mens Gold Womens Medals Mens Medals Womens Conversion Mens Conversion Delta
1 BLR 1 2 9 4 11% 50% 39%
2 IRI 0 4 0 12 0% 33% 33%
3 JAM 1 3 5 7 20% 43% 23%
4 UKR 2 4 10 10 20% 40% 20%
5 AUS 3 4 20 15 15% 27% 12%
6 FRA 4 7 15 19 27% 37% 10%
7 CHN 21 18 52 38 40% 47% 7%
8 GER 4 9 17 31 24% 29% 6%
9 RUS 12 12 44 38 27% 32% 4%
10 CUB 1 4 3 11 33% 36% 3%
11 ESP 2 1 11 6 18% 17% -2%
12 GBR 12 20 26 45 46% 44% -2%
13 NED 4 2 15 9 27% 22% -4%
14 HUN 3 5 6 11 50% 45% -5%
15 JPN 4 3 17 21 24% 14% -9%
16 CAN 1 0 9 9 11% 0% -11%
17 USA 29 17 59 46 49% 37% -12%
18 NZL 3 3 6 8 50% 38% -13%
19 ITA 3 5 8 20 38% 25% -13%
20 KAZ 4 3 6 7 67% 43% -24%
21 BRA 2 1 6 11 33% 9% -24%
22 KOR 5 8 7 21 71% 38% -33%

Australia comes 5th worst, out of 22 countries, right behind Belarus, Iran, Jamaica and Ukraine. Not exactly the company we’d chose to validate our support for women athletes.

If Australia had lifted women’s events conversion to parity with men’s events, we would’ve gotten another two gold on top of our other seven, and we would’ve ranked eighth rather than tenth. So, if the AOC is looking for somewhere to spend to increase our performance in the face of the declining benefits of our leading science, I suggest ploughing money into women’s sport.

NB. For the purposes of the above analysis, I’ve looked at whether sports events are male-only events (like Men’s Marathon), female-only events (like Rhythmic Gynamistics) or support both (like Equestrian or Mixed Doubles in Tennis). When determining if an event is a women’s event, I’ve included the two latter categories, and similarly men’s events include the first and last category.

For those that are interested, my analysis spreadsheet is also available. A more thorough analysis would look at previous summer and winter Olympics to see if this was just a one-off, but I leave that as an exercise for the interested reader.

Division of labour

I’ve recently been doing a gender course at work. I don’t think it’s because I have been singled out as having gender issues. Perhaps it was just that when people were being nominated, my name was an easy one to say. (I don’t think Lleieusszuieusszesszes Willihiminizisteizzi Hurrizzissteizzi ever had that problem.)

After hearing all about someone else’s view of gender issues, it’s really solidified my own view.  I hope I can explain it clearly here. Now, I haven’t experimentally verified this, but it is a testable hypothesis, and seems anecdotally true.

Of all the various personal characteristics, there are those that are directly related to reproduction, and all the rest. For those not related to reproduction (such as height, empathy, strength, ability to multi-task, focus, risk-taking — you get the idea) the characteristics are normally distributed for both genders. This is shown in the following diagram:

The difference between the genders is less than the difference within the genders
The difference between the genders is less than the difference within the genders

The diagram shows how for any particular (non reproduction-based) characteristic, the degree to which it appears in any gender is normally distributed across the population. The conclusion here is that the difference between the genders (as represented by the difference between the average degree of that characteristic for each gender) is less than the difference within a gender (as represented by the spread of degree of that characteristic within any particular gender).

So, treating people in the workplace (or, really any place) as if characteristics that they hold fall anywhere along the spectrum covered by both genders is a good way to ensure that you cover any particular gender well. Certainly, it’s a better approach than relying on characteristics to fall close to the average for a particular gender. In other words, and from the perspective of the male-dominated industry that I’m in, trying to accommodate both men and women is also a good way to ensure that you accommodate a broad spectrum of men.

Female of the Species

All too often the achievements in Australia have a qualifier attached. It isn’t the biggest wind farm in the world, but it is the biggest wind farm in the Southern Hemisphere. It isn’t the tallest ferris wheel in the world, but it is the tallest ferris wheel in the Southern Hemisphere. It isn’t the longest jetty, but it is the longest wooden jetty in the Southern Hemisphere.

When all the achievements in a list are qualified in that way, it diminishes the sense of achievement. In this case, suggesting that all the best stuff is in the Northern Hemisphere, but if you’re stuck in the Southern Hemisphere, then perhaps Australia is not too bad a place to be.

This Sunday (8th March) is International Women’s Day. In honour of that, I thought I’d put together a list of a few brilliant people whose achievements aren’t qualified by being the “first woman to”, but who are simply outstanding. And who happen to be women. So, it’s worth shining a bit of extra light on their achievements at this time of the year.

Angela Isadora Duncan (1877-1927) was a musician and dancer. She considered ballet “ugly and against nature”, so pretty much went off and created modern dance. She founded several schools that spread her approach to barefoot, improvised dancing, and so we have it today.

Amalie Emmy Noether (1882-1935) was an accomplished mathematician who also made significant contributions to physics. Although her mathematical discoveries were foundational in the area of abstract algebra, what’s known as Noether’s Theorem is considered one of the most important mathematical theorems ever proved in the field of physics and some physicists have claimed it as on par with the Pythagorean Theorem.

Ayn Rand (1905-1982) was a philosopher and popular writer. Her most famous work is probably the novel Atlas Shrugged, published in 1957, which concerns her philosophy of Objectivism. Her ideas have been extremely influential in the arena of capitalism and former US Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan was one of her keen students earlier in his life. Greenspan’s approach to regulating capitalist markets can be said to be a prime cause for the extent of the last couple of decade’s economic growth in the US and the subsequent global financial crisis.

Hedwig Eva Marie Kiesler (1913-2000), better known as Hedy Lamarr, was a popular Hollywood actor in her day. More significantly (from my point of view), she invented a communications technology that is now used in every new mobile phone and laptop. Together with a friend, she was granted a patent in 1942 for a “Secret Communications System” that the genesis for spread-spectrum communications that has evolved into 3G, WiFi and Bluetooth.

Vera Rubin (1928-) is an astronomer who was responsible for proving the existence of dark matter in the universe. This is pretty important as it turns out that the vast majority of the universe is made up of dark matter, and a lot of astrophysics now relies on dark matter to explain it. Actually, it turns out that most of dark matter is actually dark energy, but this doesn’t diminish the discovery.

I don’t suggest any of these people are perfect, nor that I agree with all their views, but their contributions to science and culture are profound, and I suspect most people didn’t know about them. As for myself, I was inspired by the list of scientists mentioned in the book Pythagoras’ Trousers.

Support Pink Ribbon Day, but don’t forget the men

This coming Monday (22nd October) is Pink Ribbon Day. As everyone would know, it is supporting breast cancer research, which is a good thing. People (ok, women) at my train station sell ribbons for this charity, but I’ve never seen anything at all comparable for any cancer associated with men. Now, I know that there are a small fraction of men who do suffer from breast cancer, but in the main, research and support for “female cancers” like cancer of the breast, cervix, ovary or uterus are discussed and promoted significantly more than for “male cancers” like cancer of the prostate or testis.

In the past, I’d just assumed that this was because these afflictions in women outnumbered the cases in men, and the attention on them was warranted because it was another case of women simply being shafted for being female. Men seem to get things easy, and all these cancers were the universe picking on women again, just like while Viagra was approved quickly in Australia, RU-486 isn’t really available anywhere, or like GST on tampons. However, in this case, the roll of the dice has favoured the women, and it is men whom the universe has picked on. Cases of some male cancers outnumber the females ones. By quite a bit.

Cancer statistics are tracked in a lot of detail in Australia. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare publishes a mountain of stats on cancer, although some stats are available up to only 2003 so far. So, in 2003, while there were 11,889 instances of breast cancer detected, and 2,720 deaths from it, there were 13,526 instances of prostate cancer found, with 2,837 deaths. Not that this is a competition, but instances of prostate cancer were 14% higher than for breast cancer. Why aren’t there guys at my train station selling ribbons for that? The Prostate Cancer Foundation should get a move on.

However, when all of the cases of “female cancers” listed above are totalled-up, they do outnumber the “male cancers”. Specifically, in that year, there were 14,164 instances and 2,854 deaths from “male cancers” and 15,311 instance and 3,956 deaths from “female cancers”. That’s almost 40% more deaths on the women’s team. So, there is a strong case to be made for emphasising “women’s issues” (particular for ovarian cancer, which looks pretty lethal from the stats). However, other types of cancer than breast cancer do need a look-in occasionally!