Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Engineering and Athletics

In spite of my utter scepticism about the Olympics, and about nationalism, I had to admit that I was very proud that Canadian athletes had done so well at the recent winter Games in "Vancouver" (although most events were held in Whistler) — really for the first time ever at an Olympic games.

An article I read the other day about the Cuban Olympic boxing team, and its success at summer-Olympic games, reminded me as to how during the Cold War, the former Communist regimes of eastern Europe, were so successful at both the winter and summer games.

The figures (these from Wikipedia) are undeniable. At the 1924 summer Olympics, hosted by Paris, the top five countries by medal rank were (in order): the United States (which won ninety-nine bronze, silver and gold medals), followed by France at 38, Finland with one less than France, and then Great Britain (34) and Italy (sixteen in total). At the 1928 summer games in Amsterdam, the top five were: the U.S., Germany, Finland, Sweden and Italy. In 1932 in L.A., it was the U.S., Italy, France, Sweden and Japan.

The last summer Olympic games held before World War II (when the Olympic games were suspended) was in Berlin. Not surprisingly, Germany won the most medals (at 89), followed by the United States, Hungary, Italy and Finland. After the war, the composition of the top-ranked Olympic nations began to shift rapidly. At the 1948 summer games, held in London, the top five ranking countries were the U.S., Sweden, France, Hungary and Italy. Much the same as in previous games, but notable was the eighth-ranked country: Czechoslovakia, which just that year had seen the Communist party take power in a putsch.

By 1952, when the summer Olympics were held in Helsinki, Czechoslovakia had jumped to sixth-place. For the first time in ‘52, as well, the Soviet Union sent an Olympic team. The U.S.S.R.’s medal rank came second that year behind the U.S., with 71 versus 76. But for the 1956 Melbourne, Australia games, the Soviet Union won 99 medals (thirty-seven gold) as against only 74 for the U.S. Four years later in Rome, they did even better, getting 103 versus 71 for the Americans. Eastern bloc countries Czechoslovakia and Poland came tenth and ninth, respectively.

Again in Tokyo in 1964, the U.S. was beaten by the U.S.S.R. in total medals (though it won more gold than the Soviet Union), while Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia were also in the top ten. In 1968, when the summer Olympics were held in Mexico city, the U.S. beat out the Soviet Union for most medals; Hungary and Czechoslovakia were also in the top ten, but a new Olympic team, representing East Germany (or the German Democratic Republic) came in with 25 medals, almost tying West Germany with 26 (although the East did win more gold medals than the West; prior to ‘68, the two nations had competed on a single “united Germany” team). By 1972, when the summer games were held in Munich, the Soviets were back on top, with the U.S. in second, the GDR in third, handily beating out fourth-place West Germany. Meanwhile, the last three places in the top ten were held by Poland, Hungary and Bulgaria. During the Montreal Olympics in 1976, the Eastern bloc was clearly winning the field: seven out of the top ten were Communist states, with the U.S.S.R. and East Germany coming first and second, winning 215 medals between them, including 89 gold trophies.

During the Cold War, Communist authorities were clearly interested in using the Olympic games as propaganda vehicles, to show off the superiority of Leninist socialism. What is interesting is that the success of Communist-state Olympic athletes was ramped up, even as these same countries encountered both relative and absolute economic decline. I think this parallels how command economies — and the state-controlled sectors of competitive economies — are able to more successfully develop engineered technology than are firms that operate under competitive conditions.

For a decade or more, I’ve pondered as to why this is the case, even though the cash sector is able to more effectively organize a technology-based economy better than where no competition exists. My tentative conclusion on this point has been that, in regard to research and development of applied forms of engineering, financing by governmental means is not a detriment that it obviously with other forms of investment; private financing of R&D is not as successful as it is in virtually all others forms of endeavour. But why?

There are several reasons. Motivation, for instance. Perhaps more than anyone, experts looking to bring scientific theory into engineering practice, have intrinsic incentives, regardless of the profitable end that may come from their work. This is as true of researchers working under a competitive, cash economy, as under command socialism. But, quite unlike with for-profit firms, participants in research projects financed by the state, are not usually delimited in their activities, by the necessity of creating a product or service that can sell in the marketplace. The need to make a profit is what brings discipline to the activities of companies working under competitive conditions. But it appears detrimental to research and development in the field of engineering. The need for an immediate, or at least certain, return on investment, which inspires efficiency under a cash-economy as a generality, is not at all efficacious when dealing with the technological basis of a modern economy.

Research and development under command-economy conditions (or even when investments are provided by the state which presides over a “free market” economy) does frequently lead to practical results because it such work lends itself to relatively limited ends, and measurable benchmarks. This is, of course, different from the more mundane types of production, such as clothing, housing and feeding people. As is well-known, the command economies of the former Soviet bloc were notoriously inept at these basic tasks, even as they developed satellites or jet-fighter craft that were far superior technologically to their counterparts being created in Western countries.

What does this have to do with the undeniable success that Soviet bloc athletes encountered during the Cold War? The same set of conditions are in place for athletic as for technological supremacy. Like research scientists, athletes are intrinsically motivated: their desire to win has to do with the activity itself, rather than any outside incentive, such as money. And, this intrinsic motivation is evident not only for the athletes themselves, but for those who assist them — coaches, trainers, even those who cheer them on. Certainly, athletes can make a great deal of money, both from professional salaries and from endorsements of commercial products. But this doesn’t really apply to Olympic athletes, at least not so much. Being “amateur”, athletes are not paid directly for their services. Multiple gold-medalists can make a great deal of cash from commercial endorsements, but usually this doesn’t last very long. The vast bulk of Olympic athletes have no endorsement prospects at all.

In Western countries, this has meant that athletes had to be independently wealthy (as was often the case during the first few meetings of the modern Olympics), work for a living while training part-time, or else live very modestly on stipends provided by foundations, universities or government in order to have enough training-time to compete at an international level. In the Soviet bloc during the Cold War, however, authorities were so interested in beating the West — and especially the United States — on the Olympic field, that any student showing promise in athletics was whisked into special programmes to build up her competitive potential. As such, Olympic hopefuls from the Soviet bloc were granted privileges not available to the average “citizen” in Communist countries: access to Western consumer goods, relative freedom from censorship, and most of all, travel outside the country in order to compete at the Olympics and other international athletic events. Most of all, though, they were given the free time to train without worry of having to make a living at a non-athletic job. Given this, it would be surprising if Communist-bloc athletes during the Cold War were not able to beat out Western competitors with every Olympiad.

In essence, then, what Communist Olympic programmes set out to do was to engineer the superior athlete. And, like with the successful attempts by government agencies at engineered technology, state-directed athletics (and this is as true of Western countries as of former and present Communist states), shows superior results compared to “laissez-faire”, because athletics and engineered both lend themselves to accurate metrics, and thereby to higher command-and-control.

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