Engaging Ideas

for Education

Olympics inter- and intra-country mysteries

Actress Ino Menegaki, acting as high priestess, holds the Olympic torch in a rehearsal for the lighting ceremony. The Olympic flame was lit in Ancient Olympia in Greece on Thursday, in a solemn ceremony filled with mystery and tradition that signals the final countdown to the start of this year’s summer Games in London. © AFP Aris Messinis

These are two mysteries about Cameroon and South Africa that emerged while I was writing an op-ed “Olympics gives opportunity to teach kids about global issues” (link coming).

Mystery 1: Cameroon’s greatest Olympian defects

Consider that Cameroon’s only individual gold medal winner ever, two time gold medalist in the triple jump Francoise Mbango Etone, will be representing France at the 2012 games.

Why would she switch countries?

What students may discover:

1. In Cameroon, she was self-coached which means she had little support–and also speaks of some amazing ability to train on her own

2. She expressed great pride for Cameroon in the past (even dyed her hair, green for African, red for China, and gold for the Olympic gold after the games in Bejing)

3. France was the colonial occupier of Cameroon after World War I, from 1919 to 1960 (it had been a German colony and Britain got a small northern part, but most of it was France).


STORY WITH PHOTOS: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/blogpost/post/olympics-2012-athletes-defect-during-games/2012/08/07/95d88114-e097-11e1-a421-8bf0f0e5aa11_blog.html

You can give students materials or have them find them on their own:

Here’s some source material:

Cameroon Medal History at Olympics: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cameroon_at_the_Olympics

Francoise Mbango Etone










Colonization of Cameroon: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Cameroon

Economic circumstances in Cameroon:



Mystery 2: Why are the South African Swimmers White, when only 10 percent of the country’s population is White?

The mystery is actually a bit deeper than this.  The vast majority of South Africa’s athletes participating in the Olympics are White, too.


Have students go to the South African page of the Olympics site and they can chart the apparent race/ethnicity of athletes–Race/ethnicity is a social creation more than anything genetic–so students might be intrigued to note that there is a category in South Africa “colored” that we don’t use in the United States-but goes by the name “mulatto” elsewhere to refer to “mixed” races–though that term is also not used here.


To make the task easier. I’ve created a pdf file that has all the athletes on one page.  Student groups can be given the set and and cut up and reorganize the page by sport icon and see what patterns they show, i.e., put all the swimmers together, all the football (soccer) players together, etc. South African Olympic Athletes 2012 (pdf file).

Students should note what appear to be gender or race/ethnicity differences.  Gender differences (if they emerge) could be discussed–gender differences are quite distinct for some countries in the Middle East.  The race/ethnicity differences are profound here.  Athletes with darker skin are almost universally in two areas: football (i.e., soccer) and athletics (i.e., track and field related sports).  These are lower barriers to entry sports–the lighter complexioned athletes are seen a bit in these sports and are far more predominant even to the point of excluding darker complexion athletes in other sports, including swimming.

Students won’t use the term lower or higher barrier to entry sports.  But you can ask them what do you need to run?  play football (meaning soccer)?… and you can push them that one can kick items more creatively if you don’t have an official ball–and you can do it with bare feet.

Now what do you need for swimming? While we can swim in lakes, most swimming is done in man-made pools that require lots of upkeep, and you need to learn the strokes from someone.  Likewise, the students can brainstorm about the other sports.  While it’s hard, you can imagine how someone could be entirely self-coached like Francoise Mbango Etone was in winning the triple jump at two Olympic games, but we could never imagine her doing that in swimming without a coach.

The CIA World Factbook gives this break down of “ethnic groups” for the country: https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/sf.html

Field info displayed for all countries in alpha order.
black African 79%, white 9.6%, colored 8.9%, Indian/Asian 2.5% (2001 census)



Students will find clear distinctions here.   The question is why?

The history of South Africa will give clues to them related to apartheid.

And a modern poverty index showing that 17% of South Africans live on $1.25 or less per day–that’s with purchasing power parity-so that’s what $1.25 buys here in the states): http://data.un.org/Data.aspx?d=SOWC&f=inID%3A1%20,

The mystery can deepen–as this pattern doesn’t hold for the United States so much–but do we still see racial bias in higher barrier to entry sports?

Right now the Olympic page for the United States is spotty on athlete pictures and the TeamUSA.org web site has 479 athlete pages with 9 on a page!



In either of these cases-using random sampling (a math idea)-using what we call cluster sampling to select pages for students to analyze in a similar way as what was done with South Africa would make the task far more doable.

Go to this site and insert the number of pages at the site and determine how many you of the pages you wish to sample–and simply take the first set of numbers.  So if it was seven pages–you’d take the first seven numbers that appeared: http://www.random.org/sequences/

So you might decide to just focus on athletes with Arizona ties (though they are not all competing for the United States). There are 45.



Share your feedback or contribute another mystery!!

Contributed by

Dave Wells, Ph.D.

Arizona State University




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