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How Freedom Turned Talent Into Olympic Gold—A Commentary by George L. Priest and Minor Myers III

The following commentary was published in The Wall Street Journal on August 25, 2008.

How Freedom Turned Talent Into Olympic Gold
By George L. Priest and Minor Myers III

Citizens throughout the world were enthralled by the extraordinary athletic achievements at the 29th Olympiad. In event after event, world records were broken -- human accomplishment extended -- by men and women faster, stronger and more skilled than their predecessors.

In total medals, the U.S. won the most with 110. China was second with 100 and Russia a distant third with 72; then came Great Britain (47), Australia (46), Germany (41) and France (40). But it is misleading to say that these medal rankings measure national athletic superiority.

First, many countries direct their athletes to specialize in particular events to increase the medal count. For example, of the 51 gold medals won by China, 65% were in the five sports of gymnastics, weightlifting, diving, table tennis and badminton. In contrast, of the 36 gold medals won by the U.S., two were in gymnastics; none in the other four sports. Swimming and track accounted for 53% of the gold medals won by the U.S. China earned one gold in swimming; none in track.

Of course, domination of a sport should not be disparaged. Specialization and the exploitation of comparative advantage are at the heart of the advance of human achievement. But the second, more important reason nation-against-nation ranking is deceptive is because the achievements of athletes seldom derive purely internally from within a single nation.

In our globalized world, sports, like all other market activities, seeks the advantage of beneficial opportunities wherever available.

Gymnast Nastia Liukin, who won a gold and three silver medals for the U.S., was born in Moscow. Her parents were champion Soviet gymnasts, but immigrated to the U.S. when Nastia was two. U.S. gold-medalist wrestler Henry Cejudo was raised by a mother who was an illegal immigrant from Mexico. All three members of the U.S. women's table tennis team are from China.

There are many other examples of athletes immigrating to improve their opportunities. Milorad Cavic, who lost to Michael Phelps by 1/100th of a second in the dramatic 100 meter butterfly, won his silver medal as a Serbian. Mr. Cavic was born in Anaheim, Calif., (to former Yugoslavian immigrants) and swam in college for Berkeley. U.S.-born Becky Hammon was granted Russian citizenship to play for the Russian women's basketball team.

More obviously taking advantage of global market opportunities are athletes from one country who train in another country possessing superior athletic facilities and coaching. Zimbabwe's four medals -- one gold and three silvers -- were won by Kirsty Coventry, who swam at Auburn University and currently trains in Austin, Texas. Sara Nordenstam, bronze medalist for Norway in the 200 meter breaststroke, was born in Sweden, and was a collegiate swimmer at Southern Methodist University. Irving Saladino, gold-medalist in the long jump for Panama, lives and trains in São Paulo, Brazil.

Globalization affects the market for Olympic coaches. In men's basketball, Iran's coach is from Serbia; Russia's from the U.S.; and China's from Lithuania. The coach of the U.S. women's volleyball team is Lang Ping, a gold medalist for China in the 1984 Olympics.

What accounts for this extraordinary international cross-pollination? The desire for excellence and achievement. In sports, as perhaps in no other productive activity, success in competition is defined immediately and broadcast widely. The sports market is not entirely free. Athletes must submit to immigration limitations, visa restrictions and the like. But it is freer than most labor markets, and the opportunities for substantial gains are obvious.

These many Olympic achievements are evidence of the benefits of globalization. When citizens are allowed to make the most of resources that will improve their skills -- coaching, training, competition -- human achievement advances.

Mr. Priest teaches a course entitled Capitalism at Yale Law School. Mr. Myers is a visiting assistant professor at Brooklyn Law School.