Steve's Blog

Honor All the Olympians!

Author: Stephen J. Turnbull
Organization: Faculty of Engineering, Information, and Systems at the University of Tsukuba
Contact: Stephen J. Turnbull <>
Date: 2012/08/30
Copyright: 2012, Stephen J. Turnbull

The performance of Japan's athletes in the London Olympic Games was impressive. 73 athletes collected a total of 38 medals. According to the Wikipedia, "Japan sent a total of 305 athletes to the Games, 142 men and 163 women, competing in all sports except basketball, handball, water polo, and men's field hockey."

I think it's sad that Japan focuses so much attention on the medal winners, though. Simply competing in the Olympics is a great feat, and Japan is a record-holder there: "Dressage rider Hiroshi Hoketsu, having participated at his third Olympic games since 1964, became the oldest athlete, at the age of 71 [in the] Olympic games." (Wikipedia) Japan also holds the record for the longest complete marathon in history, as Shiso Kanakuri was invited to finish the 1912 Olympic marathon, and did so in Stockholm 54 years, 8 months, 6 days, 5 hours, 32 minutes and 20.3 seconds after he started. (He had dropped out of the race between checkpoints due to heat exhaustion, and was so embarrassed that he returned to Japan without telling anyone. Losing track of an Olympian in this way embarrassed the Swedish Olympic Committee, and they made up for it 5 decades later, with characteristic Scandinavian humor. Japan Times)

When the athletes returned to Japan, the medalists were honored with a meeting with the Prime Minister and a parade in Tokyo. Everybody celebrates their country's medal-winners, of course. But it seems to me that in Japan the focus on the winners (and the bashing of losers, i.e., those who did not live up to the pre-Games media hype) is greater than elsewhere, enough so as to be qualitatively different. Many of those who did not get medals nevertheless reached the final heat (in multiperson races) or the quarterfinals (in one-on-one battles). Many of them achieved personal bests, a very few set new Japanese records. What bothers me is that many of these "second-best" athletes got a lot of attention before the Games started (especially those who were very young), but they've been ignored since the Games started. We hear nothing about those athletes who achieved personal bests (even if they got medals!)

The problem that I see for Japan is that medal counts are zero-sum: any medal that a Japanese gets, some other country doesn't get. This is also a reasonable model for international economic competition during a high-growth period. That is, up to about the 1980s, Japan was relatively low-cost compared to most of the world economy (i.e., Japanese firms succeeded on the basis of taking market share based on improving either price or quality of existing products). But since the 1990s, especially with shift of world demand to China and India and the rise of high-quality producers in Korea and Taiwan, Japan has become a relatively high-cost producer. Japan needs to shift its attention from zero-sum competition at being best-of-breed to positive-sum competition in innovating new breeds.

There's nothing wrong with striving to win the gold medal. But Japan needs to pay more attention to the goal of "be all you can be", which often requires doing something that nobody else does (yet).

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Stephen J. Turnbull