The Olympics finish tonight in the UK, and if the 66kg men’s wrestling goes well Japan will equal Australia in gold medals and beat Australia in total medals. Japan has already achieved its best Olympic result for 38 years, and 80% of its current gold medals (5 out of 6) are in combat sports; if it wins tonight, 85% will be in combat sports. Japan doesn’t win medals in the kinds of sports that favour old people. This is contradictory, because Japan’s young population is famously shrinking, and it now is much smaller as a percentage of the population than it was 38 years ago. Furthermore, other competitors – notably China, which dominated in this Olympics – aren’t in the same position, so it’s not the case that Japan’s young population has shrunk less than that of other competitors. Of course, the other country that has had a record Olympics, South Korea, has the lowest birthrate in the world and has been watching the same phenomenon in its 20-35 age group. Yet it came fourth in the medal tally, with a population just under half that of Japan’s. This is its best ever performance, surely, and well above its long term rank (about 10th).
So what’s going on? How can it be that countries like Japan and South Korea can have all-time record performances in a sporting arena that is obviously dominated by the behavior of the 20-35 year age group, even as the size of that age group as a proportion of their own (and the world’s) population is at an all time low? Even when their GDP is being demoted in ranks due to the ascension of China? Surely the first area of a nation’s social and cultural system to collapse will be that which is most closely tied to the size of its youthful population, its performance in elite sport at an international level?
The answer, of course, is technology. As just one example, consider table tennis. Japan selects many of its sports people from the university sports system (its main feeder system outside of the martial arts), and the university system here is undergoing a slow and inevitable collapse as the declining number of new students causes third- and second-tier universities to enter death matches for the remaining students. Yet, Japan achieved its best table tennis result in history, winning a silver in the team event and actually taking a set from China in one competition. When asked how it felt to deliver silver to Japan for the first time in 44 years, Ms. Fukuhara (team leader) collapsed into tears and couldn’t answer, so profound was her achievement. This, despite collapsing numbers in university table tennis clubs across the land … but it turns out, the government has funded a research project to produce machines that replicate Chinese secret ball-spin techniques, and they have been used by this Olympic team. Furthermore, Ms. Fukuhara has been competing in the Chinese super-league since 2008, and speaks fluent Chinese. This is the power of education and technology to utilize dwindling resources more efficiently. Austalia’s swimmers, of course, have been competing well above their population size for years, and are well aware of the power of good training techniques and sports institutions to overcome the effect of small or declining populations.
Another way in which Japan is overcoming its population deficit is through extending the lifespan of athletes. Ms. Fukuhara was recruited early and is seen as a child prodigy; at the other end of the lifespan, Hitomi Obara won Olympic gold in wrestling at the age of 31, and is clearly far from out of competitive power. She had to skip the 2008 Olympics due to injury, but has been dominating in a non-Olympic weight (51 kg) since 2000. This is a 12 year sporting career in an extremely demanding sport. Good rehabilitation medicine and training techniques, and a society that supports a longer range of healthy lifespan, make it possible for athletes to continue to compete long past the age when, in previous eras, they would have been wrecks. Thus it is that Japan completely dominated the wrestling events against countries like the USA, Russia and China with much, much larger populations. This is the effect of technology and organization in more efficiently mobilizing resources.
Japan and South Korea’s Olympic performances are an example of how societies will cope with ageing. Better technology, better education, more efficient systems, better-run institutions, and extensions to the productive lifespan can more than offset population declines. Changes to our understanding of how long people are “young,” when “middle age” starts and what constitutes maturity, will enable us to extend periods of the life cycle (such as those that determine fitness to work or play sport) that were previously seen within quite rigid limitations. As our ability to utilize labour and productive resources increases, we can more than offset the effects of aging. It’s another example of how aging societies are not necessarily a bad thing. If it encourages us to find ways to lengthen our youth, extend our productive life cycles, and enjoy more diverse lifestyles, then the aging of our societies should be seen as an opportunity rather than a purely negative phenomenon. Certainly, Korea and Japan’s response to the challenges of mobilizing youthful resources for the Olympics shows us that we don’t need to go backwards as our societies age – we can use new technologies and training systems to improve on our current situation. Declining populations don’t have to mean declining opportunities or productivity, they can mean diversity and dynamism as well.