GDP Olympics: Rio Edition

Every four years thousands of athletes from hundreds of nation meet to celebrate and contest the festival of sport known as the Olympic Games.  And every four years following the Olympics, patriotic pundits scrutinize the results, trying to prove which country is the best.

By the end of the 2016 games in Rio de Janiero, the United States had an impressive, record-breaking medal tally of 121 (including 46 gold medals) nearly doubling second place China (70 total medals) and Great Britain (67 total medals).  Russia’s 56 medals was also impressive given that most of its athletes were barred from competing due to widespread, systematic doping.

But the medal count doesn’t tell a complete story of which country performed the best in Rio. More populous countries have a distinct advantage. After all, more athletes should equal more medals. A nation’s economy also factors large in its ability to field a quality Olympic team. If people are just struggling to make the ends meets, it makes it very difficult to train for let’s say, synchronized diving.

Google accounted for both of these factors with its Alternative Olympics medal table. If you even out populations,  the Bahamas jumps to the top of the chart with an adjusted count of 100 medals beating out the U.S. (70) and Great Britain (50). Level the economic playing field and the top three are Fiji (with an adjusted count of 63), the U.S. (56), and Jamaica (32).

But what I like to do following every Olympics is to account for both population and GPD at the same time by adjusting the medal count for GPD per capita, all of a nation’s wealth divided by it population, which gives a rough estimate of the annual income of the average citizen. That helps answer the  question, which country is getting the most out of their resources, both human and financial?

Running the numbers in 2016 shows little change from the 2012 results. Ethiopia, North Korea, Kenya, China, Russia, Uzbekistan, Ukraine are all once again in the top 10, getting good medal results in spite of very poor economic opportunities for the average citizen.  Joining the top 10 in 2016 are Burundi, Azerbijan, and Niger. Burundi and Niger each make the list this time due to their terrible economies and the fact that they both won a single medal in Rio, something they failed to do in London. Azerbaijan earns most improved award, moving up the list from 20th place to crack the top 10 by increasing their medal haul from 10 to 18. Dropping out of the top 10 in 2016 are India, Cuba, and Jamaica. Jamaica just missed the cut by lowering its medal count from 12 to 11. Cuba also fell in the medal count from 14 to 11 while its GPD per capita improved somewhat. And India’s disappointing Rio medal count of two cost it 18 spots in the standings.

On the other side of the list are the countries that don’t get good medal results in spite of the average income of its residents.  Qatar, Singapore, Portugal, and Norway all make another appearance in the bottom 10. Norway’s four Olympic medals don’t offset its very high average income of $75,000 while Qatar, Singapore, Portugal should all expect to hear their countries’ anthems played more than once given their economic resources. Bahrain worked its way up out of the bottom 10 this year by doubling its medal count (from one to two). Saudi Arabia, Hong Kong, and Kuwait also disappeared from the bottom 10 medal winners, but they did it the wrong way. None of them factored in to this year’s calculations because they didn’t win a single medal in Rio.

Austria, Finland, United Arab Emirates, Puerto Rico, Ireland, and Trinidad and Tobago joined the repeat offenders in the bottom 10 of 2016. Finland because its medal count dropped from three to one, Puerto Rico dropped from two to one, Ireland dropped from five to one, and Trinidad and Tobago dropped from four to one. The high GPD per capital of both Austria and United Arab Emirates should justify more than the single medal they each won in Rio but they actually have reason to be proud they’re in the bottom 10 this time around. They’re actually improving. Neither country made 2012 list because neither country won a medal in London.

The United States came in 13th place in 2012 and is once again in 13th place in 2016. The medal count increased from 104 to 121, but that was offset by increased GPD per capita brought about by a recovering economy.



The Worst Teachers in America

I’ve been watching a lot of the Food Network’s “Worst  Cooks in America” lately on Netflix. Worst Cooks is a reality program in which about a dozen people with terrible cooking skills spend eight weeks at a culinary “bootcamp” learning how to cook from two top-notch chefs (Bobby Flay and Anne Burrell in the seasons I’m watching). Each week the worst two “recruits” are forced to turn-in their aprons and the show ends when one recruit wins the final cooking challenge and a $25,000 prize.

Now I’m not naive enough to think that this reality show actually has anything to do with reality and I know that the format is chosen to maximize ratings rather than sound pedagogy, but while Burrell and Flay  may be some of America’s best chefs, I can’t help noticing that they’re also some of the worst teachers. Here’s why:

  1. On every first episode, before they are taught anything, recruits are asked to cook something for the chefs, usually with humiliating results. During this time they are mocked by the experts and generally made to feel inept for lacking a skill they’ve already admitted they do not possess.
  2. Each week the worst two recruits are asked to leave, the same recruits who are most in need of more cooking lessons.
  3. The chefs often skip over the basics and demonstrate advanced cooking techniques very quickly, then expect the recruits (who “don’t know how to boil water”) to duplicate the results in an arbitrarily short span of time.
  4. After many of the demonstrations the recruits are asked to personalize or alter the recipe, even though they hadn’t practiced the original first.
  5. The chefs routinely give advice (“Be bold with your flavors”) that gets the recruits in trouble if followed (“This is too spicy.”)
  6. The chefs often shout meaningless advice at their recruits (“Get your act together!” “Are you kidding me?”) and are constantly berating them for their poor “time management,” even though they’re doing things they never done before and have no idea how long each step takes.
  7. No accommodations are made; vegetarians are expected to cook chicken and lactose-intolerant recruits are asked to make ice cream.
  8. Surprise twists are frequently thrown at the recruits, like adding a side-dish at the last minute or using a different ingredient than they were taught.
  9. Towards the end of each season, the chefs are forced to “make a difficult decision” and send someone home who’s actually cooked quite successfully.
  10. Many (most?) of the 5-star cooking skills the recruits learn in boot camp are not going to be useful to them when they return home. They can’t even pronounce many of the dishes they’re working on and their home kitchens are not going to be stocked with quail eggs and KitchenAid pasta makers.

I’m guessing most of these issues are done on purpose to make it more dramatic and interesting to watch. But I can’t help feeling that a good teacher should avoid using Anne Burrell and Bobby Flay as role models and do the exact opposite of what they do instead.

Better than Operation Christmas Child

Operation Christmas Child is a massively popular program run by Samaritan’s Purse, a Christian organization headed by famed evangelist Billy Graham’s son, Franklin. Every year about this time hundreds of thousands of kids in elementary schools, youth organizations, and church groups in the United States and other countries collect shoeboxes filled with Christmas gifts to be sent to needy children in hundreds of countries across the globe. Samaritan’s Purse has delivered more than 135 million such boxes since 1993.


The appeal of Operation Christmas Child is obvious. It’s a well-run program and it’s an easy way for affluent children (and their parents) to share the Christmas spirit, to give a tangible expression of love to the less fortunate. Christian organizations also like the fact that OCC shoeboxes are sometimes accompanied by literature sharing the Gospel message and giving an opportunity to get involved with a local church.

In spite of its popularity OCC isn’t without controversy. Some allege that Franklin Graham’s salary is disproportionately high compared to presidents of other charitable organizations. Others claim that Samaritan’s Purse downplays (or hides) the evangelical nature of Operation Christmas Child leading to awkward situations where non-Christian children are inadvertently participating in an activity contrary to their own faith. Still others are bothered by the fact that Franklin Graham is an outspoken critic of Islam, a partisan stance most humanitarian relief organizations try hard hard to avoid.

But even assuming they’re all irrelevant or false, these criticisms completely miss a bigger issue. Operation Christmas Child might be a good tool for evangelism, but it’s a lousy aid program. Here’s why:
  • OCC does nothing to directly address the long term needs of the children receiving the gifts or their parents. (Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. Give a shoebox full of toys to one of his kids and you…?)
  • Toys (particularly cheap, plastic toys) and candy are some of the worst things you can give to children who really need access to health care, education, and nutritious food.
  • The people who derive the most economic benefit from OCC are Chinese toy manufacturers, and shipping companies. The local economies of the countries where the toys are handed out receive no benefit from OCC and may actually be harmed. (If you were the local toy store how would you feel when the OCC boxes arrived?)
  • OCC hopes to deliver 12 million boxes in 2016. At $7 per box, the shipping fees alone amount to $84 million. Imagine the impact that money could have if it was donated directly to local non-profits and pumped into local economies instead.
  • OCC does not have enough in-country staff to equitably distribute the shoeboxes. They have to rely on volunteers and partner organizations who determine to whom, when, and how the boxes will be given. Sometimes this works well, other times it does not. (In 2001 I witnessed an OCC shoebox delivery at a Special Olympics event in Managua, Nicaragua turn into a political campaign rally as everyone had to sit through a presidential candidate’s campaign speech before he got the honor of passing out the boxes.)
  • It’s difficult to buy toys in the United States that are not directly tied to some aspect of North American culture. We’re exporting our language, our sports, our music, our movies, and our Disney princesses without any regard for the cultural context of the children on the receiving end.

When it’s all said and done, Operation Christmas Child is an easy program that does more to help Americans feel good about ourselves at Christmas time than it does to help fulfill the long-term needs of the less fortunate.

They’re not as flashy and you do not get as much personal satisfaction donating to them, by there are other organizations which achieve better, longer-lasting results with your money than Operation Christmas Child. Here are just a few: