Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Olympic medals: weighted, per capita, per GDP

I have always thought the Olympic Games medals tables to be way too simplistic.
Case in point: the Canadian media always show the table in order of total medals, presumably because it shows Canada in the best light (in Rio, Canada placed an impressive 10th in total medals, as compared to a mediocre 20th when ranked by golds); British media, on the other hand, show the medal standings in order of gold medals (GB placed second, above China, in golds, but third, below China, in total medals). I feel sure that the Chinese media would use the total medals rankings system for the very same reason.
I have never understood why the medals table does not reflect the quality of medals by a points system, say 3 points for a gold, 2 for a silver and 1 for a bronze, or perhaps the 4:2:1 ranking suggested by the New York Times (other weighting suggestions have also been put forward).
I could find surprisingly few resources on the Internet for such a weighted tally, but one I did find weighted gold at 6, silver at 3 and bronze at 2 (which seems reasonable to me). What it shows is not particularly revolutionary - USA followed by GB, China, Russia and Germany, with Canada in 15th spot - not significantly different from the rankings by gold medals, apart from in a few minor cases further down the table (e.g. France boosted slightly by its silver medal count, Kenya and Jamaica demoted slightly because of the preponderance of golds among their medals, etc).
But there are other options. For example, another way that the medal standings could be portrayed is according to medals per capita or medals per GDP. These methods would level the proverbial playing field, and adjust for the built-in advantages enjoyed by large and rich countries. Luckily, someone has already done the hard work here, and analyzed the medals tables for the Rio (and previous) Olympics, both by population and by GDP.
The medals per capita shows a very different picture than the one we are used to seeing. The United States languishes back in 43rd position, and China in 76th. The heavy hitters here are now the Caribbean islands of Grenada, Bahamas and Jamaica, followed by New Zealand, Denmark, Croatia and Slovenia. Britain still places a respectable 19th, and Canada 31st.
In medals per GDP, Grenada and Jamaica still head the table, followed now by Kenya, Fiji, Armenia and Georgia. (On some analyses, Chinese Taipei ranks top by this method - I'm not sure what the issue is there). The United States falls still further to 64th, while China improves slightly to 61st. Great Britain and Canada lie in 36th and 62nd places respectively. Quite an eye-opener.
And which metric is best? Well that depends on who you ask...

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Badger cull is not going to help England's bovine TB problem

Organized badger culling started in England back in 2013 in an attempt to control the extent of bovine TB among cattle herds. The theory was that badgers were spreading the disease, and so getting rid of badgers was considered the country's best "shot" at getting rid of the disease among cattle. About 4,000 badgers have been killed in Gloucestershire, Somerset and Dorset since 2013 (in addition to the 50,000 or so that are killed on Britain's roads every year), at an estimated cost of over £7,000 per animal. Now the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) wants to extend the contentious program to Devon, Cornwall and Herefordshire.
Unfortunately, the program is not based on good science, and so has not been very effective. It turns out that only about 6% of bovine TB cases can be attributed to badgers; the vast majority come from cattle-to-cattle transmissions. Logic suggests that a vaccine for cattle should therefore be a priority. But Defra remain undaunted, and convinced that badger culls are the way to go.
England apparently has the highest rate of bovine TB in Europe, resulting in thousands of cattle being slaughtered every year. Clearly, it is major problem. But killing badgers is, just as clearly, not the solution, and pouring good money after bad has never been an effective strategy.

The secret to Britain's Olympic success

Like, I am sure, many others, I have been impressed by Great Britain's medal showing in the Rio Olympic Games. Depending on how you want to measure it, they placed second, above China, although of course well back from the USA. Their total of 67 medals was lower than China's 70, but it included 27 golds to China's 26, 23 silvers to China's 18, and 17 bronzes to China's 26. So the quality of their medals was certainly higher even if China can claim the overall quantity. (Quick shout-out to Canada, which also had its most successful Olympics ever, with 22 medals, mainly thanks to our women competitors, and a top 10 finish).
Just as an aside, it's interesting how British websites show medals table in order of gold medals (which favours Britain), while Canadian sites show the table in terms of overall medals (which favours Canada: 10th in overall medals, but 20th in golds).
But anyway, for a country that came 36th in the medals table as recently as 1996 in Atlanta, this is quite an achievement for Britain. Even in 2012, when the Games were held in London in front of a supportive home crowd, GB placed third, well behind the USA and China (and also behind Russia in total medals). So, in Rio, Britain has achieved that rare thing, an improvement over a record-breaking home performance. It has also strongly outperformed other developed countries with similar or greater populations, like Japan, Germany, France and Italy, as well as the populous and sports-mad home country, Brazil.
So, what is Britain's secret? Well, depressingly enough, the answer seems to be: money. UK Sport, which is the government body that allocates money raised from the national lottery and taxes to the various aspects of elite sport, has actually increased its investment in Olympic hopefuls over the last few years, even over and above its funding of the run-up to London 2012. And those sports (like athletics, boxing and cycling) that have fuelled Britain's rise in the medals standings over the last decade or so are the ones that have benefitted most, at the expense of less successful sports like swimming, wrestling and volleyball, which have seen their funding cut. In addition, the national lottery pays out as much £28,000 to individual medal-winners, and up to three-quarters of that to top 8 finishers, and half to individual identified future stars.
So, arguably, GB's success has come as the result of a brutal but effective policy based on a soulless cost-benefit analysis, similar in some ways to Canada's own "Own The Podium" program of recent years. As such, just as in Canada, the policy has come under some intense criticism for its cynical and money-centred philosophy.
In particular, many argue that the financial focus on elite sports is actively damaging "grassroots sports". In an environment where activity levels and participation in sports has reached an all-time low, where obesity is an ever-increasing problem, and where local authority budgets continue to be slashed, what then is the purpose of investment in sports? To boost Britain's image in the world at large, perhaps? Just as an example, in the wake of Britain's successes in swimming in the Rio Games, there has been a large surge in interest in swimming, but local pools remain underinvested, and many are closing or struggling to remain open due to funding cuts, and an estimated 52% of schoolchildren leave school unable to swim 25 metres unaided.
There is necessarily a limited pot of money available for countries to invest in sports. What should be the focus of that investment? Is it more important for a country to get a gold medal in sailing or taekwondo, than to achieve a modest improvement in the proportion (currently standing at about a quarter) of the population that does less than 30 minutes of activity a week?

Friday, August 12, 2016

Are Trump's gaffes deliberate self-sabotage?

In the interests of fairness, I have been trying to understand the strange phenomenon that is Donald Trump, to understand where he is coming from, and where he thinks he might be going. Trying, and failing.
His latest outburst came on Wednesday, during a campaign rally in Florida, when he claimed unequivocally, not once but three times, that President Barack Obama was the founder of Islamic State (IS or ISIS): "ISIS is honouring President Obama. He is the founder of ISIS. He's the founder. He founded ISIS. And I would say the co-founder would be Crooked Hillary Clinton. Co-founder: Crooked Hillary Clinton."
Now, most people know that Islamic State began as Iraq’s local affiliate of al-Qaida in the early 2000s, and is usually considered the brain-child of the Jordanian-born activist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed in 2006 during a US airstrike. So, OK, you think, this the Donald's (rather lame, and not at all funny) idea of a joke, a metaphor, poetic license, whatever. But he certainly didn't look like he was telling a joke, and his lackeys in the crowd certainly seemed to be lapping it up as the gospel truth.
Then, the next day, a conservative radio commentator gave Trump an opportunity to manage the gaffe, suggesting that perhaps Trump meant by his outrageous claim that Obama’s foreign policy had created the conditions in Iraq and Syria that allowed IS to thrive. Trump's response? "No, I meant he's the founder of ISIS. I do. He was the most valuable player. I gave him the most valuable player award." When it was pointed out that Obama has led a coalition of Western and Arab countries in an extended campaign against IS, and launched over 10,000 U.S. airstrikes in an attempt to defeat it: "I don’t care, he was the founder."
Then you start to worry. Who is this guy? What does he hope to achieve by this fabulation? It was only in a terse tweet on Friday morning that Trump finally attempted to defuse the situation, by belatedly claiming that it was all just a little joke after all, a small exercise in sarcasm: "Ratings challenged @CNN reports so seriously that I call President Obama (and Clinton) "the founder" of ISIS, & MVP. THEY DON'T GET SARCASM?" You can almost imagine a bunch of distraught advisers pleading with him to retract his initial statement and save his campaign, and Trump's grudging acquiescence, petulant lower lip extended and quivering.
So, how to make sense of it all. I think sense is perhaps too much to expect, but there is a theory, one that has been around for some time now, that Trump actually does not want the Presidency and is deliberately trying to sabotage his own campaign. Why would he do that? Perhaps partly because the whole thing was just a ruse in the first place, a publicity stunt, a cynical exercise in self-promotion and hubris, to see just how far he could pull the wool over the eyes of the American public. And perhaps partly because he really never expected to get this far, is in way over his head, and is now panicking at the prospect of actually having to run the country (according to some, he only ever wanted to place second, so that he can make his point, gain some publicity and notoriety, and then escape from the real responsibilities).
Interesting theory, and perhaps the only one that makes any sense at all, although maybe it is conferring a little too much smarts and Machiavellianism on the man. Maybe he is, after all, just an idiot and actually believes the stuff that comes out of his mouth (see this recent article for a good summary of some of his most egregious claims and assertions during the campaign).

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Cupping is the new celebrity snake oil

If, like me, you were wondering about those funny, round, red welts being sported by Olympians like Michael Phelps, then the answer is "cupping".
Yes, that's cupping as used by the ancient Egyptians, Persians and Chinese, and by the medically-misinformed practitioners of medieval Europe. Basically, a cup or glass of some kind is placed on the skin and heat or a vacuum is applied to suck the air out of it. The idea is supposedly to influence the flow of energy (or "qi") through the body, and to mobilize local blood flow in such a way as to somehow eliminate toxins from the body and even promote healing and pain relief.
It's the latest fad among entertainment celebrities, who are always in search of new talking points for their Instagram pages (including Lena Dunham, Jennifer Anniston, Justin Bieber and Gwyneth Paltrow), and a few sports celebrities (most notably swimmer Michael Phelps). However, if it sounds like snake oil, or just something from Monty Python, you may not be far wrong.
As with so many trendy alternative therapies, there appears to be little or no scientific evidence of its efficacy. A 2012 meta-analysis in the journal of the US Public Library of Science, PLOS ONE, found that, for a few conditions, cupping may have conferred some benefit. However, some 85% of the studies involved had a "high risk of bias", particularly in that they were not blinded or placebo-controlled studies, suggesting that a grain of salt may need to be taken with them. The medical community in general treats cupping as a pseudoscience with absolutely no medical evidence of any efficacy at all, except perhaps a psychosomatic one in some cases.
Cupping is unlikely to be actively dangerous, other than some unnecessary bruising and a risk of infection from those types of cupping that also involve cuts to the skin. But, like many other alternative therapies, the main worry is that such unproven treatments may steer people away from other evidence-based therapies that actually do work. We should not be basing our medical decisions based on Instagram popularity.

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

How is attacking hospitals in the Middle East an effective war tactic?

Two more deliberate attacks on hospitals in the Middle East - one a government airstrike on a Doctors Without Borders hospital in rebel-held Millis in northern Syria, which killed 13 (including 4 staff and 5 children); the other a Taliban suicide attack on a hospital in Quetta in southwestern Pakistan, where lawyers and journalists had gathered to mourn the shooting death of a prominent lawyer earlier in the day, which killed at least 70 people and wounded at least 100 more - has me scratching my head at why hospitals are considered legitimate, or even useful, targets in the various wars that plague the region.
Despite being explicitly banned by the Geneva Convention, and therefore constituting a war crime, attacks on hospitals seem to be an increasingly common occurrence, particularly in the "dirty war" in Syria, but also in Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq and South Sudan. The NGO Physicians for Human Rights claims to have documented 224 attacks on 175 health facilities since the start of Syrian conflict, with 599 medical personnel killed in the attacks, and that was in February last year, before the recent rash of attacks. Another report by the World Health Organization details 594 attacks on hospitals and clinics in the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere in 2014 and 2015 (also, therefore, before the more recent enormities), with a total of 959 medics, support staff, patients and visitors killed.
Most of these attacks involve airstrikes, which necessarily means that the perpetrators are states (rebel groups typically do not have the resources for such attacks), foremost among them being Bashar al-Assad's Syrian regime and its Russian supporters. Both Syria and Russia claim that they are not deliberately targeting hospitals, but Doctors Without Borders (who, along with the Red Cross, operate and fund many of the hospitals in rebel areas) beg to differ. One senior MSF staffer has singled out the permanent members of the UN Security Council, four of whom - Russia, France, UK and USA - he maintains are actively involved in conflicts where medics are targeted, by funding the offending groups even if not by actively engaging in bombings (as in the case of Russia). Amnesty International have also come out and unambiguously stated that "Russian and Syrian government forces appear to have deliberately and systematically targeted hospitals and other medical facilities".
What I don't understand is, setting aside the fact that the targeting of medical facilities is clearly violating the "laws of war", why would any combatant see it as a useful tactic in their struggle anyway? What do they gain from such acts, other than a whole load of bad publicity, and a potential future trial in the International Court of Justice? Even maternity and pediatric hospitals have been targeted. My question is: why?I have yet to read a convincing explanation of the phenomenon.

Monday, August 08, 2016

Thailand votes to curtail its own democracy

Here's a new twist on politics: Thailand has just voted for a military coup. In a referendum, about 62% of the voting population has voted for a new constitution that lays the foundation for a civilian government strongly influenced by the military and controlled by appointed (rather than elected) officials.
Basically, the people have democratically voted to curtail democracy. I'm not sure that has ever happened before (at least not in such an open and flagrant way), and it is difficult to know just what to make of it. The vote appears to have been a free one, and not rigged or forcibly influenced in any major way, so one has to assume that that is what the people actually want.
Yes, Thailand has been beset by street violence and divisive politics for years. But this seems like a rather extreme remedy, and one that the people may come to regret in the future.

Friday, August 05, 2016

The Olympics have finally outrun their mission

Cathal Kelly, the Globe and Mail's resident philosopher of sport, has penned a thought-provoking article on the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and its role and relevance in the 21st century.
As Kelly opines, the IOC increasingly sees its role being "think Olympically" when everyone else is caught up in the nitty-gritty of fighting poverty, recession, etc, and the thankless task of making ends meet. He sees the IOC as functioning "less like a business conglomerate and more like a romantic cult" in which "the systemic belief in sport as a vehicle of cultural advancement is total". IOC president Thomas Bach is the chief Cool-Aid dispenser in this system, and Kelly perceives a "jagged edge of ecstatic fundamentalism" behind the "bland MBA terms" of his media deliveries.
Kelly even sees evidence of the IOC's ambitions for "social engineering" in the IOC's decision to bring non-sports like skateboarding and surfing under the Olympic banner. The inclusion of these disciplines (which are really lifestyles rather than sports) on the grounds that they are popular with the world's youth ("we go where the young people are", as Bach says) shows a rather alarming desire to subsume almost everything under the Olympic code, and to couch everything in terms of winners and losers. The IOC wants to represent itself as the "Manifest Destiny" of sport, to dictate what should be considered not only "Higher, Faster, Stronger" (as in Pierre de Coubertin's original motto), but even what is "Better, Purer, More Wholesome". Bach's justification of allowing the majority of Russia's athletes, despite the contrary recommendations of almost all other international sports organizations, on the basis of "natural law" is just another example of the IOC's Saviour Complex.
Much of this might be a little hyperbolic, but much of it rings true. The modrn Olympics is certainly an excessively bombastic, bloated, and almost certainly corrupt, affair. Disfunctional, even. For decades now, it has been blighted by the modern disease of assuming that everything has to be bigger, more comprehensive and flashier than ever before (Faster, Higher, Bigger?). Such growth is almost always unsustainable, and the Olympics are clearly starting to creak at the seams.
Mr. Cathal's essay is a provocative and challenging article, and not just because it supports to some extent my own belief that the Olympics have over-stepped their mission and out-stayed their welcome.
Call me an old fuddy-duudy, but I really believe that things started to go wrong when professional athletes were allowed into the Olympics back in the 1980s. Maybe, at the time the modern Olympics,  were resurrected, it seemed like a good way to bring a disparate and dissipating world together. But now the Olympics are more a source of division than unity, and have become much too intertwined with politics and economics. We have the IAAF World Championships, the World Cup, Wimbledon, etc, etc, not to mention any number of Asian Games, Pan-Am Games, European Championships, etc, etc. Do we really also need an Olympic Games that has grown into an unwieldy and uncontrollable monster?

I remain hopelessly conflicted over the Olympics. I deeply believe all of the above, and I am convinced that the Games are an unjustifiable diversion of much needed money, an explosion of rampant nationalism and a medals-at-any-price philosophy, run by a corrupt and bloated organization that sees its mandate as the iron control of all that is sport.
And what have I done since the opening ceremony but cheer on Canada, glory in the splendid performances of the world's best athlete, and lap up the human interest stories that permeate the constant television coverage?
Whatever you might think of the Olympic Games in the theoretical abstract, it remains a gloriously compelling event like no other. Sometimes, it's just so hard to be a hard-nosed cynic and a holier-than-thou grouch.