Since the Olympics is dominating news coverage, I might as well toss in my two yen's worth.
Twelve years ago, economist Stephen D. Leavitt patted himself on the back for having the brains and the guts to produce a study proving something everyone already knew was true: matches in sumo were fixed. Brains for noticing a bizarre and reliable weakness of rikishi with a majority of eight losses when facing opponents on the brink of relegation. Guts for taking on the Sumo Federation, which denied match fixing was taking place.
Leavitt's study was never a big a deal in Japan. When a rikishi at 7 wins and 7 losses on the final day grappled with one with a record of 5 wins and 9 losses, the question in the minds of viewers was not "Who would win?" but "How much did the stable of the guy at 7 and 7 offer the other stable for that all-important eighth win?"
As for the denials from the Sumo Federation regarding match fixing, what did Leavitt expect? "Oh, an American economist has discovered that match results veer wildly from randomized competition. Oh, gosh golly, we admit it: we are no better than professional wrestling!"
As if that were going to happen.
The only reason the cheating buggers got caught is because they began cutting their deals via email.
If Dr. Leavitt had a spare moment for some further feretting out of facts from out of data, perhaps he should consider this year's Olympics. Japanese athletes have collected a serious haul of medals (only two of which are gold) putting the country in fifth place in total medals, even after getting mauled in the national sport of judo. Now there are fewer sports in the last week of the Olympics where Japanese athletes are likely to excel, so the final national totals may be completely different from the current distribution. However, the Team Japan performance -- especially in swimming -- begs the question: where have all these world-class athletes come from? Japan has a declining number of young people, two decades of below-par economic performance and declining fitness among its youth.
One answer of course may be from greater international experience. More Japanese Olympians are competing professionally in foreign sports leagues or on international tours.
Greater genetic variation? Admittedly there is a smattering of bi-national athletes: hammer thrower Murofushi Koji, javelin thrower Genki Dean (No, that is not a typo. That is his real name. His father is a British national), soccer player Sakai Takatoku and rhythmic gymnast Saeed-Yokota Nina (not to be confused with her younger sister Elena, who is a member of AKB48. That is also not a typo).
However, five individuals out of 487 athletes seems an insignificant number.
Which brings up my guess -- the international crackdown on doping.
Based on the number of Japanese athletes who have been caught doping or accused of doping over the last two decades, Japanese athletes have been pathetic in taking advantage of advances in performance-altering chemistry (keirin cyclists may be the exception here).
Now that the international athletic federations are coming down like a load of bricks on doping, the international playing field is more level. Japanese athletes, who had never boarded the chemistry express, may be winning medals in accordance to a more natural distribution taking into account national wealth, national health and national resources devoted to sports talent development.
Given the seeming Japanese failure to cheat (Is this where we can start talking about culture? - Ed.) it is possible to speak of virtual medals in past Olympiads, where Japanese might have won had they not been facing enhanced rivals.
Finding out whether or not that nasty little truth is lurking in the stats -- that would be a worthy endeavor.