Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors
Nicole Forrester

GET UPDATES FROM Nicole Forrester
 

Michael Phelps May Have the Most Medals, But is he the Best Athlete?

Posted: 08/07/2012 11:30 am

With 22 medals to his name, Michael Phelps has entered the history books as the most decorated Olympic Games athlete ever. We may never see another athlete accomplish what he has in our lifetime. But, does that make him the ultimate athlete of the Olympic Games? 

Some may argue that perhaps that title belongs to Usain Bolt. Although, Bolt's four gold medals (and counting) may pale in comparison to Phelps' arsenal of medals, some will quickly point out that not everybody swims but everybody runs. So, are all gold medals equal?

Have you ever wondered why certain countries seem to dominate the medal count when it comes to the Olympic Games? True a country's population may play a role, but did you know the single most predictive factor of a country's medal count at the Olympic Games is Gross Domestic Product (GDP)? GDP per capita is indicative of a country's living standards. One might assume a greater GDP allows a country to provide the facilities, coaches and infrastructure to develop various sporting opportunities, thereby giving way to greater performance results.

And what about the likeliness for an athlete to be successful in a given sport? 

Similar to GDP, turns out there is another monumental factor at play -- depth of competition. By this I mean, how many people in the world participate in a given sport. For example, if one is competing in a sport that involves only 10 nations, versus a sport which involves 220 nations one's likeliness for medalling is greater in the sport with 10 nations.

Mitchell and Stewart (2007) have proposed a Competitive Index for Sport by evaluating the characteristics associated with sporting success and the participating countries for the various sports. It was determined that the most competitive individual sports at the 2004 Olympic Games were athletics, swimming, and shooting, respectively, while modern pentathlon, gymnastics trampoline, and canoe kayak slalom scored lowest on the competitive index. 

Mitchell and Stewart found that it was possible to rate the competitive quality of a given sport and the chances for success, whereby the lower the competitive index score the greater chance an individual stood to be successful at the Olympic Games.

For example, the International Ice Hockey Federation has 70 member nations (and two affiliate nations), which is pretty remarkable and competitive, and for that reason you can understand why winning the World Cup in hockey is a big deal to Canadians. However, consider the International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF) which has 212 member nations, and with the allowance of three athletes per country to compete in a given event at the Olympic Games, suddenly the possible depth of competition can be as much as 636 world-class athletes. It's no wonder why winning the gold medal in the 100 metre is one of the most coveted medals in the world.

While the size of the competition field is one aspect, another thing to consider is the resources and opportunities at hand. Perhaps the reason why sports like Athletics (Track & Field) and Football (Soccer) are the most participated in the world is because there is minimal barrier to do these sports. The cost of equipment/facility is negligible, compared to a sport which may require ice time, a sailboat or a horse. 

Consider the fast paced and exciting game of polo which requires horses to be ridden in three minute intervals. As such, each polo player must have several horses, and each horse can cost you $200,000 plus sheltering, veterinary and travel expenses. It's not surprising that most of us have never played polo in our lives. Likewise, the same may be said about the numerous other disciplines where resources and opportunity plays an integral factor in participation. We know in Canada alone, one in three families cannot afford to have their children participate in organized sport.

Even amongst elite level athletes, resources play a big role in the success of an athlete and the difference between good and great. As a world-class athlete, I've experienced and witnessed the incredible impact that support, resources and finances have on performances. It is the difference between eating healthy, receiving necessary therapy, having your coach travel with you to competition and not. This can be the difference between a gold medal and a eighth place finish. I've witnessed far too many athletes miss out on that podium because they didn't have the necessary resources.

Outliers 
The birth-rate effect, described by Maxwell Gladwell in the book Outliers, discusses how being born early in the year influences one's chances of becoming an NHL player. However, researcher Jean Cote (whose works Gladwell cites in his discussion of the birth-rate effect) points out that actually where one is born (birth-place effect) has a greater impact on an athlete's chances for success (Côté et al., 2006).  The reason -- resources and opportunity.

We must be exposed or presented with the opportunity, to ever really know what hidden abilities lay within us. I know this fact all too well. Really, if I wasn't working at McDonald's that one random day when I was 17 years old and asked if I wanted to learn how to high jump, I would never have become an Olympian. It's as simple as that. Which often leaves me wondering how many untapped "talents" are out there and never developed?

Going for Gold
The road to the Olympic Games and the podium is a hard one, no matter the sport one comes from, or the resources and opportunity in place. At the end of the day, nothing can replace the passion we as athletes must have to relentlessly pursue excellence, through lactic acid, broken bones and fatigue. It is a fire that must inherently burn to be sustained. Still it is worth contemplating (in the back of your mind) how depth of competition, resources and opportunity, as well as other factors may contribute to the achievement of a gold medal. Most importantly, how many "other" possible Olympians are out there, that could have been?

Loading Slideshow...
  • Closing Ceremony

    Christine Sinclair carried the flag for Canada and the hosts staged another star-studded show to close off the London Games.

  • Party Time

    Canada's athletes celebrate at the Olympic Closing Ceremony. (Frank Gunn/CP)

  • Canada's Flagbearer

    Christine Sinclair carries the flag for Canada at the Olympic Closing Ceremony. (CP/Frank Gunn)

  • They're Back

    British band 'The Spice Girls' perform during the Closing Ceremony at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Sunday, Aug. 12, 2012, in London. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

  • Posh At The Games

    Victoria Beckham performs as Posh Spice with British band The Spice Girls during the Closing Ceremony at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Sunday, Aug. 12, 2012, in London. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

  • Strut Their Stuff

    British model Naomi Campbell, fourth right, walks with other models during the Closing Ceremony at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Sunday, Aug. 12, 2012, in London. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

  • Still Got It

    Brian May, guitarist of the British rock band Queen, performs during the Closing Ceremony at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Sunday, Aug. 12, 2012, in London. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

  • Baby, You're A Firework

    Fireworks explode over the Olympic Stadium at the closing ceremony of the 2012 Summer Olympics, Monday, Aug. 13, 2012, in London. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)

  • Wavin' Flag

    The Olympic flag is handed over to the mayor of Rio de Janeiro, the host of the 2016 Olympic Games. (AP)

  • Soak It All In

    French athletes sit and watch as the Olympic Closing Ceremony come to a close. (AP)

  • Hometown Pride

    An athlete holds up the British flag during the Closing Ceremony at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Sunday, Aug. 12, 2012, in London. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)

  • Day 16

    And after 16 days or winning, losing, scoring and missing, the London Games have come to an end. Canada's medal count remained at 18, while the U.S. would go on to to win a gold in men's basketball. Russia defeated Brazil in men's volleyball to take home a gold and the Italian men's water polo team fell to their Croatian counterparts to secure a silver medal.

  • Spain's Got Game

    Spain's Sergio Llull reacts during the men's gold medal basketball game against USA at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Sunday, Aug. 12, 2012, in London.

  • Kiss The Podium

    Members of the gold medallist team from Russia kiss the podium during the rhythmic gymnastics group all-around final at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Sunday, Aug. 12, 2012, in London.

  • Alekno's In The Air

    Members of team Russia lift their coach, Vladimir Alekno, into the air after defeating Brazil in a men's gold medal volleyball match at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Sunday, Aug. 12, 2012, in London.

  • Right Jab To the Face

    Russia's Egor Mekhontcev, right, fights Kazakhstan's Adilbek Niyazymbetov in a light heavyweight 81-kg gold medal boxing match at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Sunday, Aug. 12, 2012, in London. Mekhontcev won the gold and Niyazymbetov won the silver.

  • Marathon Men

    Gold-medalist Stephen Kiprotich of Uganda, left, competes with Kenya's bronze-medalist Wilson Kipsang Kiprotich, center, and silver-medalist Abel Kirui in the men's marathon at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Sunday, Aug. 12, 2012, in London.

  • Pink And In Sync

    The team from Russia performs during the rhythmic gymnastics group all-around final at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Sunday, Aug. 12, 2012, in London.

  • Elation

    Cuba's Robeisy Ramirez Carrazana reacts after being declared the winner over Mongolia's Tugstsogt Nyambayar in their flyweight 52-kg gold medal boxing match at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Sunday, Aug. 12, 2012, in London.

  • Viva Italia

    Italy's Emanuele Birarelli (15) reacts following the final point of a 3-1 win over Bulgaria in the men's bronze medal volleyball match at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Sunday, Aug. 12, 2012, in London.

  • There's A Reason The Call Him King James

    United States' LeBron James dunks during a men's gold medal basketball game against Spain at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Sunday, Aug. 12, 2012, in London.

  • The Smell Of Sweet, Sweet Victory

    Croatia's Ivan Buljubasic sniffs his flowers after receiving his gold medal at the men's water polo gold medal ceremony at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Sunday, Aug. 12, 2012, in London. Croatia beat Italy 8-6 in the gold medal game.

  • DAY 15

    Canada wins yet another bronze medal in men's K1 200m kayak event, and Mexico defeats Brazil for the gold medal in men's soccer. Canada had an another Olympic upset and lost the bronze medal in the 4x100 relay due to a disqualification. Jamaica set a world record.

  • Tearin' Up Our Hearts

    Canada's Justyn Warner is comforted after the team was disqualified from third place in the men's 4x100-meter relay.

  • Jamaican Us Crazy

    Jamaica's Usain Bolt reacts as he finishes ahead of United States' Ryan Bailey in the men's 4 x 100-meter relay.

  • XOXO

    Britain's Mo Farah kisses the track after winning gold in the men's 5000-meter final during the athletics.

  • Love On Top

    Sharif Sharifov of Azerbaijan celebrates after he beat Jaime Yusept Espinal of Puerto Rico for the gold medal during the men's 84-kg freestyle wrestling competition.

  • Race Walk It Out

    Russia's Elena Lashmanova celebrates winning the women's 50-kilometer race walk.

  • Spike!

    United States mb Foluke Akinradewo, left, and Destinee Hooker react during the women's gold medal volleyball match against Brazil.

  • Buck Off

    Hwang Woojin, of South Korea, and his horse Shearwater Oscar, fall down after the horse bucked after the starting bell sounded to start their run in the equestrian show jumping stage of the men's modern pentathlon.

  • Sailing Away

    From left to right Spain's Elliot 6m crew Angela Pumariega, Sofia Toro Prieto, and Tamara Echegoyen celebrate after winning the gold medal at the London 2012 Summer Olympics, Saturday, Aug. 11, 2012, in Weymouth and Portland, England. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

  • Oro

    Mexico's Hector Herrera (6) and Mexico's Oribe Peralta (9) celebrate winning the gold medal with teammates in the men's soccer final against Brazil.

  • Mistakes Happen

    Bronze medallist Belarus' Liubou Charkashyna cries after a performance during the rhythmic gymnastics individual all-around final.

  • Gold Medal Ribbon

    Russia's Daria Dmitrieva performs during the rhythmic gymnastics individual all-around final.

  • Settles For Seventh

    Canada's Catharine Pendrel (2) competes in the Mountain Bike Cycling women's race.

  • Australia's Got Talent

    Australia's Jared Tallent competes in the men's 50-kilometer race walk.

  • Express Yourself

    Jake Herbert of the United State competes against Sharif Sharifov of Azerbaijan (in blue) during the men's 120-kg freestyle wrestling competition.

  • Splash Zone

    Amro El Geziry of Egypt, left, and Nicholas Woodbridge of Great Britain swim the 200-meter freestyle during the swimming portion of the men's modern pentathlon.

  • Fencing Is Modern

    Britain's Samuel Weale looks up during the fencing section of the men's modern pentathlon.

  • DAY 14

    Canada wins another bronze in men's open-water marathon and placed 4th in synchronized swimming. U.S. women's team set a world record in the 4 x 100 relay and Bahamas beat the men's team in the last stretch of the race.

  • Blade Runner

    South Africa's Oscar Pistorius competes in the men's 4x400-meter relay final during the athletics in the Olympic Stadium.

  • Bahamas FTW

    Bahamas' Ramon Miller beats United States' Angelo Taylor across the line to win the men's 4 x 400-meter relay.

  • WOOOOAH

    France's Renaud Lavillenie clears the bar in the men's pole vault final during the athletics.

  • Going Down..

    Kenya's Hellen Onsando Obiri leaps over United States' Morgan Uceny during the women's 1500-meter final during the athletics.

  • United States' Morgan Uceny reacts after falling during the women's 1500-meter final during the athletics in the Olympic Stadium at the 2012 Summer Olympics, London, Friday, Aug. 10, 2012. (AP Photo/Daniel Ochoa De Olza)

  • Throw It Up

    South Korea's head coach Hong Myung-bo is hoisted up by his players after the team won their men's soccer bronze medal match.

  • They've Got The Beat

    The team from Russia performs during the rhythmic gymnastics group all-around qualifications at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Friday, Aug. 10, 2012, in London. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

  • Bump, Set, Boom

    Bulgaria's Viktor Yosifov (12) spikes home a point against Russia during a men's volleyball semifinal match at the 2012 Summer Olympics Friday, Aug. 10, 2012, in London. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

  • Ouch!

    Brazil's Squel Stein is carried off the field in a stretcher during a BMX cycling women's semifinal run at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Friday, Aug. 10, 2012, in London. Stein fell off her bike after she landed on the grass following a big jump in the first half of the course. The 21-year-old Stein secured her best result in a major competition earlier this year when she reached the world championships final. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

  • Underwater Cam

    The team from Russia competes during the synchronized swimming team free routine final at the Aquatics Centre in the Olympic Park during the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, Friday, Aug. 10, 2012. Russia won the gold medal in the event. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

  • Open Water

    Swimmers dive into the Serpentine to start the men's 10-kilometer marathon swimming competition in Hyde Park at the 2012 Summer Olympics Friday, Aug. 10, 2012, in London. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

 

Follow Nicole Forrester on Twitter: www.twitter.com/nicoleforrester

FOLLOW CANADA LIVING