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Most 'Valuable' Athlete in Beijing? Not Phelps

Who’s the most valuable athlete at the just-completed Beijing Olympics?

It’s not Michael Phelps. Not Usain Bolt. Not Kobe Bryant, LeBron James or any other member of the Redeem Team. Not Yang Wei, not Yao Ming, not anybody from Team China.

It’s female swimmer Kirsty Coventry of Zimbabwe – pound-for-pound (or dollar-for-dollar, euro-for-euro, if you will). And it’s not even close.

An NCAA champion who’s been swimming at Auburn University, Coventry nevertheless represents her home country, a poverty-stricken mess in the midst of hyperinflation. As recently as July, it cost $250 billion Zimbabwean dollars to buy a loaf of bread – until the government redenominated its worthless currency.

But Coventry brought at least some honor to her troubled nation. Her four medals, one gold and three silver, accounted for all of Zimbabwe’s medal haul in Beijing. In fact, of Zimbabwe’s eight Olympic medals, all-time, Coventry won seven of them.

Her medal production means that in Beijing, Zimbabwe would’ve produced nearly 181 medals per $10 million US in Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Of course, Zimbabwe’s nearly nonexistent national economy helped make this happen. But it takes nothing away from Coventry’s achievement, even if she does train and live in the United States.

Coming in as a distant second is Jamaica, a poor Caribbean nation that has enthralled the world by becoming a sprinting powerhouse in recent Games. Besides Bolt’s three gold medals, Jamaica claimed three more gold, three silver and two bronze medals in Beijing. All of the island nation’s 11 medals came in sprint events between 100 and 400 meters.

Of the nations ranked with the best medals production vis-à-vis GDP, they generally fall into three groups: African nations (Zimbabwe, Kenya, Togo and Ethiopia), Caribbean nations (Jamaica, Cuba and Bahamas) and former Soviet Republics (Armenia, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Belarus, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan and Moldova). Of these 16 nations, 11 currently or formerly practiced communism, including North Korea and Mongolia.

Two of these nations also are among the leading medal-winning nations in Beijing. And not so coincidentally, both are run by communist governments – Cuba and Belarus. And both are by far the poorest among nations that won at least 16 medals.

Cuba has always been an Olympic heavyweight, its 24 total medals placed it 12th among the 202 teams that took part in the Olympics. The Beijing Games, still, must be considered a failure by the Castro regime as Cuban athletes won just two gold medals – none in boxing, which Cuba historically dominated. And not even baseball as South Korea defeated Cuba in the gold medal game.

Half of the 16 top medal-producing nations are G-8 members. And most of the rest are western-(style) democracies - plus China, the host nation and the world’s third-largest economy.

Economic prowess obvious has a positive correlation with a country’s ability to produce Olympic medals. Most of these countries performed at similar rates in Beijing, at about 1-3 medals per $10 million US in GDP.

Among western nations, Australia stands out with its production of over 6 medals per $10 million US in GDP. Ever since hosting the Sydney Games in 2000, Australia has been among the top five medal winning nations, despite a small population base of 21 million (slightly less than the state of Texas).

The one country conspicuous by its absence among the winning nations is India, an emerging economy, that, with over $1 trillion US in GDP, ranks 12th in the world. Yet, until the Beijing Games, India has never won a single Olympics gold medal aside from men’s field hockey. And despite having participated in every Olympics since 1920, India has never won more than two medals at a single Games. Between 1980 and 1996, India did not win a single medal in three successive Summer Olympics.

When Abhinav Bindra won the gold in men’s 10-meter air rifle, India exploded in joy. With Sushil Kumar and Vijender Kumar (no relation) winning bronze medals in wrestling and boxing, respectively, India was positively glowing in its unprecedented Olympic achievement.

Just don’t tell the jubilant Indians that in terms of medals per GDP, India placed dead last among the 87 nations that won at least one medal in Beijing. At least India can take solace in not getting shut out, however.

Saudi Arabia, with $376 billion US in GDP, is the nation with the highest GDP (25th) not to win a single medal in Beijing. In the kingdom’s “storied” Olympic history, which covered nine Games, it has won just a silver and a bronze medal, both in Sydney 2000.

Of course, when you don’t even allow half of your population to compete in any sport, you’re not helping your chances. But that’s a story for another day.

Samuel Chi is Editor of RealClearSports. He may be reached at sam@realclearsports.com. Follow him on Twitter @BCSGuru.

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