The Cheetah: Vanishing from Africa but Returning to India

In 2016, National Geographic announced that the cheetah is “racing toward extinction,” with its population expected to decline precipitously over the next 15 years. Only around 7,000 cheetahs, the world’s fastest mammal, live in the wild. Their remaining habitat is dispersed and disjunct, with roughly 77 percent of it falling outside of protected areas. A recent scientific study found that outside of protected areas, cheetah populations are highly vulnerable and declining. The Asiatic subspecies, now limited to Iran’s arid Dasht-e Kavir, is now functionally extinct, its population limited to an estimated 12 individuals, nine of which are male.

Several hundred years ago, Cheetahs inhabited a vast area extending across most of Africa and southwestern Asia. (The map posted below, however, exaggerates and misconstrues the historical range, as is common in maps of this sort; cheetahs never lived in the dense forests of far north-central Iran or in the driest parts of the Sahara, and their range did not abruptly terminate at the modern political border between Iran and Armenia and Azerbaijan.) In prehistoric times, cheetahs also lived in Europe, where, according to one theory, they died out due to competition with lions. But as cheetahs easily coexisted with lions in historical times across most of Africa and southwestern Asia, this thesis is unconvincing. Regardless of where they lived, cheetahs evidently came close to extinction twice, once around 100,000 years ago and again around 12,000 years ago. Due to these near misses, cheetahs have extremely low genetic diversity, making them highly vulnerable to infectious diseases.

But just as cheetahs are vanishing from Africa, they are getting a new lease on life in India. In September 2022, eight cheetahs were transferred from Namibia to Kuno National Park in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, where they were personally released by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his 72nd anniversary. (One of these cats later came down with a kidney ailment is currently undergoing treatment.) On January 25, 2023, South Africa announced that it sill send more than 100 cheetahs to India. Whether Kuno is large enough to sustain a viable cheetah population is an open question, leading some biologists to express reservations about the entire initiative. In the future, they might also have to compete with lions. In the 1990s, Kuno was selected as the main site of the Asiatic Lion Reintroduction Project, which resulted in the removal 1,650 Adivasis (tribal people) from Kuno National Park. India’s – and indeed, Asia’s – only remaining lion population has long been restricted to Gir National Park in Gujarat, making it highly vulnerable to extinction. Gujarat, however, has successfully resisted the transfer of any of its lions to Kuno, even though its own population has overpopulated its restricted range.

Cheetahs have a celebrated history in India, where they were widely used by aristocrats as a semi-domesticated hunting animal. According to the Indian author Divyabhanusinh, the Mughal emperor Akbar the Great owned some 9,000 cheetahs over the course of his lifetime, although most experts think that this figure is greatly exaggerated. Regardless of numbers, tame Cheetahs figure prominently in Mughal art and were held in high esteem. But cheetahs were also killed in large numbers by elite Indian and British hunters. According to Wikipedia, “Three of India’s last cheetahs were shot by the Maharajah of Surguja in 1948. The same maharaja “has the notorious record of having shot and killed a total of 1,710 Bengal tigers, the highest known individual score.”

India was not the only place in which cheetahs were used extensively in hunting. Images from the third millennium BCE in both Mesopotamia and Egypt depict leashed cheetahs. According to the Indian blogger Rahultiwary, citing Wildcats of the World by Mel and Fiona Sunquist, “Later the cats were widely used in the Middle East, Afghanistan, southern Russia, Pakistan, India, and China. Tame cheetahs were used to hunt goitered [or black-tailed] gazelles, foxes, and hares in Russia and Mongolia, and the sport flourished during the middle ages in Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia. In 1474, one Armenian ruler owned 100 hunting cheetahs.” In Central Asia and the Caucasus, cheetahs here evidently exterminated in the 1950s, and by the late 1970s they were hunted out of the Arabian Peninsula as well.

The gradual disappearance of cheetahs from Africa, coupled with their reintroduction to India, has important lessons for conservation biology. Many environmentalists who warn about the impending “sixth wave of extinctions” also think that economic growth and development more generally are the root cause of the crisis. According to the noted Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich, the primary drivers are “continued population growth, and overconsumption, especially by the rich” Continuing economic growth, such authors argue, entails the extraction of ever more resources, which will eventually – and quite soon in Ehrlich’s view – reach the point of exhaustion, resulting in a systemic collapse. Although their dire predictions have all failed thus far, eco-pessimists might be right in the long term , as only time can tell. But in the short term, they are almost certainly wrong. Rampant habitat loss and wildlife destruction is occurring primarily in the least developed parts of the world. Where economic development has reached an advanced stage, habitat is generally increasing and wildlife is rebounding. Economic development is also closely correlated with reduced human fertility; economically surging India now has a below-replacement-rate Total Fertility Rate of around 2.0, whereas in economically troubled Niger the figure stands at 6.6. To the extent that economic development is hindered in tropical Africa for environmental reasons, the destruction of nature can be expected to be intensified rather than reversed. Even in Europe, environmentally justified energy austerity programs are accompanied by increased environmental degradation. When people have difficulty affording power, trees can be quickly sacrificed for fuel, as is indeed occurring in some of Europe’s few remaining old growth forests.

India deserves credit for protecting and restoring wildlife and wild lands at a far higher level than might be expected on the basis on its raw developmental standing. Most of the world’s remaining wild tigers, for example, live in India, even though India accounts for a relatively small portion of the animal’s original range, and even though India is far poorer than most countries that had, or still have, viable tiger populations. The contrast in wildlife conservation between India and China is especially stark and has been apparent for hundreds if not thousands of years. The sad story of China’s long history of wildlife extirpation can be found in Mark Elvins’ well-researched book, The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China.

As a final note, North America had its own “cheetah” (Miracinonyx trumani) until the Pleistocene-Holocene Extinction Event circa 12,000 years ago, which wiped out roughly 85 percent of its large mammals. This large America cat was morphologically similar to the cheetah. It was likewise built for speed, as was its main prey, the pronghorn “antelope.” Recent genetic research, however, has shown that Miracinonyx trumani was much more closely related to the puma (cougar or mountain lion) than to the eastern hemisphere’s cheetah, and is therefore now properly deemed “the American cheetah-like cat.” It came to resemble the cheetah through convergent evolution, not from descent from a common ancestral species.

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And the Winners are … Norway and Slovenia: Sochi Medals, Per Capita

Sochi per capita medals mapI must admit to being off-put by the nationalism that is prevalent at all Olympic games, as I would rather see athletes competing against each other, not countries locked in competition. But regardless of my personal feelings, the Olympics form a showcase for national pride, and countries do compete with each other at a variety of levels. Reports on the medal count at the Sochi Winter Olympics put Russia in first place, with 33 total medals, and the United States in second place, with 28. Such a count is slightly misleading, however, as the gap between the two countries was much more substantial if one weighs the kinds of medals received. If, for example, one were to give three points for a gold medal, two for a silver, and one for a bronze, Russia would handily beat the United States, with a score of 70 against 53. The same system, moreover, would place Norway in a tie with the US, and would leave Canada just one point behind.

A more serious issue, however, is whether it is fair to compare Norway, with a population just over five million, with the United States, which has well over 300 million inhabitants, much less with China, with over 1.3 billion. I have therefore taken the “medal index” described above and divided each county’s count by its population (in millions). The outcome is apparent on the map above. As one can see, Norway, by this measurement, was the overwhelming winner, with more than 10 “medal points” per million inhabitants, greatly exceeding the score of Russia (0.49) and especially the United States (0.167). The only country that comes close to Norway is Slovenia, with a score of 7.0. Austria comes next, with 3.8, and Switzerland follows with 3.2.

The four leading countries share a number of features. All are prosperous by global standards, although Slovenia lags well behind the others, and all have substantial mountains with major ski resorts. Although few people think of Slovenia as an Alpine country, the Julian Alps extend well into its small territory, and according to one website Slovenia boasts “several dozen fully maintained ski centres.” Prosperous northern countries without mountains are less competitive. Denmark’s only winter Olympic medal (silver) was won by its women’s curling team in Nagano Japan at the 1998 Winter Games, and Belgium has taken home only one medal since 1952. The major exception here is the Netherlands, but it is notable that all of its medals at Sochi were in speed skating (including “short track speed skating”), a sport that it dominated at the 2014 games. Other non-mountainous countries that did well in the per capita medal count at Sochi include Finland, Latvia, and Belarus.

USA Today has an interesting ranking of countries by number of participating athletes per medal. Here the Netherlands is the clear leader, with figure of 1.7, whereas the figure for the last-placed Slovakia is 62. But of course many competing countries did more poorly than Slovakia, as they won no medals at all. The same site has a number of other intriguing bits of information, such as the fact that the United States came in first place in only one sport: snowboarding.

Finally, for an intriguing series of cartograms on historical Olympics performance, see this site.

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Mongolia’s Three Manly Skills, the Olympics, and Genghis Khan

In anticipation of future posts exploring the geography of Olympic medals, this post will focus on the sporting fortunes of one country in particular—Mongolia. Mongolia tends to perform very well in on the basis of medals won weighed by population or GDP. In 2012, Mongolia earned two silver and two bronze medals, placing it third in total medals per dollar of GDP and tenth in total medals per capita. Since Mongolia’s first summer Olympics in 1964, all of the country’s medals have come from just four sports: wrestling, boxing, judo, and shooting.

The sporting scene in Mongolia has remained remarkably stable for hundreds of years. The traditional Three Manly Skills of Mongolia—horseback riding, archery, and wrestling—remain the country’s most popular sports to this day. The cultural niche filled in the U.S. by the Super Bowl in in Europe by the UEFA Champions League is in Mongolia filled by the three-day Naadam festival (picture at left from Wikipedia). Most Mongolian communities have their own Naadam festival, but the national festival in Ulaanbaatar always takes center stage. At the festival, contestants gather to showcase their horsemanship, test their skill with a bow, and grapple in the traditional Mongolian wrestling style known as Bökh. The aim of Bökh is quite simple: to knock one’s opponent to the ground (picture at left from). Though wrestling is always the most anticipated event, the trick horsemanship on offer at the festival is extremely popular and immensely impressive.

Champions, or “Titans”, as Bökh winners are known in Mongolia, tend to transition fairly easily to foreign wrestling venues. Many have gone on to have successful careers in Japanese Sumo-Wrestling while others become the Olympic medalists that catapult Mongolia to its lofty position in the per capita medal rankings. Mongolia’s high position thus isn’t much of a mystery when one considers that a country’s per capita success in a sport will depend heavily on the share of its youth who are exposed to that sport. What is rather strange, then, is Mongolia’s inability to compete internationally in horse-based events.

The warriors of Genghis Khan practically lived on their horses. They could ride for days, gaining sustenance by cutting the veins of their cold-numbed horses and drinking as much blood as they could without physically compromising their mounts. In battle, they shot arrows with deadly accuracy no matter which way their horses happened to be running. The Mongols of today may not drink much horse blood, but many are still excellent riders, and riding maintains its place as a central experience in Mongolian life, especially outside of Ulaanbaatar. Horses in Mongolia outnumber people, and the winners of wrestling competitions often receive horses as a prize. According to Wikipedia, a well-known Mongolian military figure picked up coins from the ground while riding a horse at full speed. It seems that Mongolia’s relative failure in equestrian Olympic sports as well as non-Olympic thoroughbred racing is not due to a lack of horsemanship, but rather to huge differences between its style of horse competitions and those of the rest of the world.

Unlike skill in Bökh, which carries over well to more international forms of wrestling, Mongolian horsemanship spurns the kind of courses that define dressage and similar Olympic events. Mongolians have little use for horses that excel at jumping or sprinting, though those events are practiced to some degree. Instead, Mongolians today seek the same quality in horses as their ancestors did: endurance. To Genghis Khan’s rivals in China and Europe, Mongolian horses looked weak, slow and haggard compared to their well-fed counterparts. Mongolian horses usually triumphed in the end, however, as their supreme endurance allowed armies to move quickly and fight in the most favorable locations. During battle, Mongolian horses could run back and forth constantly without tiring, allowing fresh troops to fire wave after wave of arrows at confused enemies who usually mistook this maneuvering for a full retreat.

Mongolia’s most popular distances for horse racing are 25 kilometers or more, distances that utterly dwarf those of the rest of the world. Mongolians also do not coddle their horses, which live outside in temperatures as cold as -40°C. Though often mistaken for ponies due to their diminutive size, Mongolian horses are arguably the toughest in the world. Currently, Olympic equestrian sports are set up to represent a Western, upper-class conception of horsemanship that features fancy costumes and multi-million-dollar animals jumping over short fences. Perhaps a more balanced formulation of equestrian sports that included endurance events would allow Mongolia supplement its medal haul from wrestling and judo.


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Revamping French Guiana for the World Cup and Olympics

Although Brazil has received ample press attention in its scramble to prepare for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic games, its neighbor French Guiana has also started drawing up plans to host athletes competing in the two sporting events. The overseas region of France will expand its sport, tourism, and transportation infrastructure in order to attract elite athletes to train there for the games. Earlier this month in London, the government-sponsored group GIP Guiana 2014-2016 promoted the region as a convenient, safe, and scenic place for foreign teams to train away from the hustle and bustle of the main competition venues.

The French government will spend about €35 million ($43 million) over the coming three years on projects that will include the renovation of two soccer stadiums in Rémire-Montjoly and Kourou, as well as the construction of new sports facilities. Future high-end training centers will include an Olympic-grade running track, a swimming pool, and a gym for martial arts, which together would accommodate athletes competing in up to 20 different Olympic events. In addition to a new transport system, French Guiana will also build new hotels, with a capacity of up to 4,000 visitors.

Government officials hope that these activities will boost the economy of French Guiana, which like the Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique and the African island of Mayotte, is considered an integral part of the country of France. The construction jobs and tourism that the project will generate should reduce the region’s unemployment rate of about 20 percent. After the next Olympics, the new stadiums would provide a venue for the cultivation of sports talent in French Guiana, which has a youthful population and many cultural affinities with the Caribbean. Even though the region is considered politically equal to any other in the country—it sends representatives to the French legislature and is part of the EU and Eurozone—it has a much lower standard of living than metropolitan (European) France. While the highest in South America, French Guiana’s GDP per capita is slightly less than half the national average, and the economy is highly dependent on government subsidies and the presence of the European Space Agency’s spaceport.

The effort so far has been promising. Twelve countries are already considering using the country’s facilities, and GIP Guiana 2014-2016 has received advice from the London Olympic authorities about planning for the infrastructural challenges of hosting thousands of athletes and their coaches.


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The British-Soccer Indian-Poultry-Firm Controversy

Indian firms have been investing heavily in European companies in recent years, a development generally welcomed by the European public and governments alike. The German government, for example, has gone to some lengths to entice Indian high tech forms to invest in the former East Germany, and a number of Indian companies have responded. The Bangalore-based information technology company Infosys has been particularly active in Europe, where is now employs more than 5,000 people. Such quintessentially British brands as Jaguar, Land Rover, and Tetley Tea are now under Indian ownership.

In one area, however, Indian ownership of European concerns has proved quite contentious—that of professional sports teams. In 2011, the Bahrain-based Indian business tycoon Ahsan Ali Syed purchased the Spanish soccer club Racing de Santander; controversy intensified as the club went through three different mangers in the 2011-2012 season. Fans claim that Mr. Syed knows little about the sport and is therefore not able to run the team competently. Even more divisive has been the 2010 purchase of the Blackburn Rovers Football Club, a storied soccer franchise, by the Indian poultry and pharmaceutical firm Venkey’s. The new management immediately began changing the coaching staff, angering the club’s supporters. Earlier this month, a disgruntled fan released a chicken on the playing field wrapped in the Blackburn Lancashire flag emblazoned with the word “out,” intended as a message for the club’s owners. Yesterday, a Lancashire paper announced that a “Blackburn Rovers supporters group is to call on the Premier League to investigate Venkey’s takeover” of the club. According to the article, the group claims that Venkey’s has mismanaged the Rovers and has been unable to communicate effectively with fans. When it comes to sports, locally specific cultural knowledge is extremely important, apparently imposing some limits on globalization.


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Rugby League Encouraged by Ghana

Rugby Union World Map Wikipedia

Rugby Union World Map WikipediaGhana is attempting to establish the sport of rugby league both in the country and throughout West Africa, a move described as part of as “groundbreaking development initiative.” With financial backing from Europe, the project aims to educate Ghanaian youth about the sport and to set up training facilities and venues for competition, focusing initially on local universities. Rugby is played in the region, but Ghana has not done well, having been humiliated by Mali, by a score of 28 to 3, last August in the West Africa Rugby Championship tournament. (It is unclear, however, whether the tournament in question was one of rugby league or of rugby union, which are actually two different games.)

The geography of sports in an interesting topic, in part because different games spread with colonialism and commerce, but not in a predictable manner. Unlike cricket, for example, rugby never gained much support in the British Caribbean. In the same part of the world, baseball spread with U.S. influence and military intervention to the Dominican Republic, but not to Haiti.

Outside of Europe, rugby is popular in Argentina and South Africa, but it reaches its height in the greater Pacific. Australia and New Zealand are well known for their rugby prowess. As far as rugby league is concerned, no country can match Papua New Guinea (PNG) for popular support. According to a 1995 article in The Independent:

Matches in PNG are unlike any elsewhere in the world. It is not unusual for spectators in full tribal dress to walk for hours through the countryside to watch major games. When grounds cannot accommodate them, there have been near-riots by those locked out. The smell of tear gas became all too familiar during the 1990 tour.



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Regionalizing California

With thirty-eight million people spread over an area of 163,696 square miles (423,970 km2) and an economy that would rank between the eighth and eleventh largest in the world if it were an independent country, California makes an unwieldy state. Its different regions are so distinctive culturally, economically, and politically that numerous attempts have been made to divide California into two or more states. As a previous GeoCurrents post noted, earlier divisional movements wanted to split northern from southern California, whereas current-day campaigns want to hive off the more conservative interior from the coastal counties. “Coastal California,” however, is far from unified, as its north/south divide, focused on the metropolitan rivalry between Los Angeles and San Francisco, remains profound.

Northern California Map from Wikipedia Despite the political gap between the coast and the interior, the binary north/south scheme remains the most popular way to divide the state. “Central California” appears on many corporate and governmental maps, but it barely exists in the public consciousness. Hardly anyone would describe himself or herself as being from “Central California,” although many would specify the “Central Valley” or the “Central Coast.” Yet as fundamental as it is, the dividing line between the north and the south remains uncertain. The older scheme, which I learned in Elementary School, splits the state at the Tehachapi Mountains, giving northern California the entire Central Valley, including the culturally southern* city of Bakersfield at the far end of the San Joaquin Valley. The Wikipedia’s map of “Conventional Northern California,” which splits along county lines, gives only the southern extremity of the Central Valley to southern California. Many observers, however, put the boundary further to the north.

One intriguing way to assess such regional affiliation is through “fansheds,” areas in which most people cheer for a certain professional sports team, and hence identify with the city in which it is located. Major League Baseball has produced a map that approximates such cheering zones, based on “blackout zones” in which the television coverage of home teams is limited. Here the state’s north/south divide is approximately halfway down the San Joaquin Valley. Note here the northward extension of southern California to the east of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, placing sparsely populated Inyo and Mono counties in the south.

Yet the terms “northern California” and “southern California” do not always refer to these primary divisions of the state. When California is divided into multiple regions, the same names can be attached to much smaller areas. As the collection of maps posted here shows, “northern California” sometimes means far northern California, in one form or another. One semi-official scheme delineates nine economic regions, one of which is called “northern California.” This particular region, however, is poorly conceived.  Mendocino County, its economy based on marijuana, wine, and high-end tourism, has precious little in common with Modoc County in the far northeast. Economically, culturally, and politically, Modoc is more closely linked to northern Nevada and eastern Oregon than it is to the rest of California, let alone Mendocino County. (The fitting motto of conservative Modoc County is, “Where the West Still Lives.”)

One way to more rigorously regionalize the state is through voting behavior. Although California is now considered hopeless for Republican presidential candidates, large areas of the state remain Republican strongholds. While the division here is sometimes depicted as one of the Democratic coast versus the Republican interior, the actual pattern is rather more complicated. The 2000 and 2004 presidential elections make particularly good examples, as that of 2008 skewed unusually far to the Democratic side. As these maps show, southern California still trends Republican at the county level, with the notable exceptions of highly Hispanic Imperial County, populous and multi-ethnic Los Angeles County, and up-scale Santa Barbara County. In Northern California, on the other hand, the coast/interior divide is stark; all coastal and Bay Area counties voted for the Democratic candidates in these elections except Del Norte in the extreme north, and almost all interior counties voted for Republican candidates, many by substantial margins. The only two Central Valley counties to lean left were Sacramento, site of the state capital, and Yolo, home of the University of California at Davis. (The city of Davis has been evocatively called “Berkeley in Ohio,” referencing the flat topography, hot summers, and the relatively conservative attitudes found in neighboring communities.)

Similar patterns are found on other electoral maps. Consider, for example, the returns from Proposition 8, which rejected same-sex marriage in 2008 (the results of which were recently overturned in court). Here a few northwestern counties drop from the liberal camp, including heavily Hispanic San Benito and Solano, the latter noted for a recent anti-gay backlash movement in the working-class city of Vallejo. Proposition 215, which legalized medicinal marijuana in 1996, had much broader support, virtually sweeping the coastal counties, north and south. The defeated initiative that would have fully legalized marijuana in 2009, on the other hand, gained the majority of votes only in the Bay Area and the Central Coast, along with sparsely populated Alpine (population 1,175) and Mono (population 14,202) counties in the east. Note that even Mendocino County rejected this initiative. But it did so, many argue, not from opposition to marijuana, but rather from fear that cannabis legalization would generate too much competition and thus undermine the local economy. San Luis Obispo County on the Central Coast is the real oddity here, as this usually conservative-voting county rejected medical marijuana in 1996 but supported full legalization in 2009.

*Bakersfield’s, and, more generally, Kern County’s, “southern” affiliation links the region not so much to southern California as to the American South (which is actually the southeastern quadrant of the country). Oil-rich Kern County was settled heavily by migrants from Oklahoma and Arkansas in the 1930s, it has some Southern linguistic markers (such as pronouncing pen the same as pin, see map), and its popular musical tradition—“the Bakersfield sound”—is Southern as well.


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An Innovative, Inaccurate Baseball Fan Map

It is not often that I would go out of my way to praise a map that advertises itself as “highly inaccurate,” but I will do so in the case of the Common Census Major League Baseball Fan map. The map was constructed from crowd-sourced data, relying on responders to specify where they live and what team they support. Unfortunately, the response-base was not adequate to generate an accurate map. The map that was produced, however, is suggestive, and the technique is promising. As far as northern California is concerned, I find it highly unlikely that Sonoma County, located north of San Francisco, would support the Oakland Athletics more than the San Francisco Giants. In my experience, Giants territory extends north of San Francisco, through Sonoma and Mendocino counties. The map’s portrayal of areas without MLB teams, such as Utah, is intriguing.

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The Politics of Pakistani Cricket

India and Pakistan have not played a cricket test series since 2007, as athletic relations between the two countries were frozen after the 2008 Mumbai terror attack. A recent geopolitical thaw, however, has led to call for resumed play, but thus far it has proved impossible to schedule a match. The Board of Control for Cricket in India recently argued that delays have stemmed from its need to gain governmental approval before anything can be set up, but the head of Pakistan’s Cricket Board responded with a taunt: “Maybe the way our team is performing and the way their team is performing in Australia, they look afraid, for them losing to Australia is not that much emotional, but its more emotional losing to Pakistan.”

Meanwhile in Pakistani cricket, the sport’s governing board announced that it will conduct an extensive “rehabilitation program” for nineteen-year-old bowler Mohammad Aamer, who was recently released from a British prison for engaging in a spot-fixing scandal. And former cricket-star turned opposition politician Imran Khan vowed recently that he would enter “reconciliatory talks” with the people of Pakistan’s rebellious Balochistan province. In Pakistan, cricket is always much more than a mere sport.

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Sochi 2014: A Subtropical Winter Olympics?

Wikipedia map of the Subtropics

Wikipedia map of the SubtropicsIn 2010, Foreign Policy magazine asked Russian opposition leader and Sochi native Boris Nemtsov why he opposed the 2014 Winter Olympics in his hometown. Nemtsov’s reply was broad ranging. He decried the displacement of 5,000 people while warning that corruption and organized crime would devour most of the construction funds showered on the city. He began his critique, however, with Sochi’s climate:

“[Putin] has found one of the only places in Russia where there is no snow in the winter. He has decided to build these ice rinks in the warmest part of the warmest region. Sochi is subtropical. There is no tradition of skating or hockey there. In Sochi, we prefer football, and volleyball, and swimming. Other parts of Russia need ice palaces — we don’t.”

Sochi does indeed have a subtropical climate, with average winter temperatures well above freezing, complicating Olympic plans. As Nemtsov elaborates, most of the skating facilities are being built in the Imereti Valley, which is warmer than Sochi itself. Cooling, needless to say, will be expensive. The ski venue might seem to be even more of a problem, as Olympic-quality skiing requires natural snow in copious quantities. The snowy Caucasus Mountains, however, lie just to the northeast of Sochi.  The main skiing facilities at Krasnaya Polyana, thirty-seven miles (sixty kilometers) from the city center, will probably have adequate snow.

Tabular Comparison of Climate in Sochi Russia and Portland Oregon, Wikipedia DataBut while Sochi qualifies as subtropical by strict climatological criteria,* it can be misleading to characterize it as such, at least in the United States. If I were to use the term “subtropical” in class, my students would imagine Miami or perhaps Los Angeles at a stretch. Certainly those native to California’s Bay Area would never consider their winter-chilled homeland as “subtropical” in any sense. Yet the Bay Area is actually much warmer in winter than Sochi. In Palo Alto, the average February high temperature is 62°F (16°C), far exceeding Sochi’s 49.8°F (9.9°C). In terms of annual temperature range, Sochi is closely analogous to Portland, Oregon, as can be seen in the paired tables reproduced here. In the United States, the notion that Portland has a subtropical climate would seem quaint if not ludicrous.

From the Russian perspective, however, Sochi definitely is subtropical. If anything is mentioned about Sochi in the Russian press, it is generally its sub-tropicality—and for good reason, as it is essentially the only place in the country with a non-freezing winter. Climate evaluations turn out to be variable, relative to one’s personal experience. I once spent a summer in the Nunamiut (“Inland Eskimo”) village of Anaktuvuk Pass, Alaska, where the locals found their own summer climate delightfully temperate and that of the adjacent Yukon Valley oppressively hot. In Anaktuvuk Pass, July temperatures rarely exceed 50°F (10°C). Yet one day during my sojourn the winds died down, the sky cleared, and the temperature soared to a delightful 75°F (24°C)—or so I thought. The villagers were not pleased at all with the brutal heat.

The (US) Wikipedia article on Sochi describes its climate not only as subtropical, which is technically true if slightly misleading, but goes on to characterize it as being of the “Mediterranean–type”—which is simply incorrect. Mediterranean climates are characterized by dry summers, and those of Sochi are distinctly wet. True, Sochi gets a bit more rain in the winter than in the summer, but its average July precipitation of 4.9 inches (124 mm) is hardly meager. In most climate classification schemes, a Mediterranean climate cuts off at 30 to 40 millimeters (1.2-1.6 inches) of precipitation in the driest month. (Note that by such criteria, Portland Oregon is definitely Mediterranean, yet few Americans would place such a wet city in that category.)

Beyond ice-rink cooling costs, the Sochi Olympics faces a number of problems. The Circassian protests have already been discussed in previous posts, and issues surrounding organized crime and corruption are noted above. But according to Boris Nemtsov, the mire runs much deeper. In a 2011 television interview, he claimed that the total costs could exceed U.S. $30 billion—ten times the figure of the Vancouver Olympics. Nemtsov also highlights the cultural and environmental damage suffered by the city and its environs, as roads are pushed through nature reserves and old residences are demolished without replacement. Such disruptions, he claims, have already undermined the summer tourism industry, the lifeblood of the local economy. Construction, moreover, is running behind schedule, worrying Russian leaders. In mid-January 2012, “President Dmitry Medvedev … ordered the government to ensure facilities for Russia’s 2014 Winter Olympics were finished on time, in a rare official show of impatience with the sluggish progress.”

Sochi is not the only part of the Caucasus impacted by ambitious winter tourism designs. Russia plans to build major downhill ski resorts elsewhere. According to a January 14, 2013 article:

[T]he draft project of the tourism cluster in the south of Russia envisages the construction in 2011-2020 of five world-class mountain resorts in Lagonaki (Krasnodar Territory, the Republic of Adygea), Arkhyz (Karachaevo-Cherkessia), Elbrus-Bezengi (Kabardino-Balkaria), Mamison (Republic of North Ossetia-Alania), Matlas (Republic of Dagestan). The length of all the ski slopes will total nearly 900 km. 179 elevators will be installed. Hotels of various levels of comfort designed for 89,000 places will be constructed. … Each year the North Caucasian tourist cluster will accept 5-10 million tourists.

            Such plans seem overly optimistic, as security concerns, inadequate infrastructure, and poor hotel management may make it difficult to attract many tourists. Some critics think that Russia would be much better off building additional winter sports facilities in the Khanty-Mansiysk area in the Ural Mountains of western Siberia. Khanty-Mansiysk, capital of the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug, boasts of its mountain skiing facilities and the fact that it has successfully hosted several world biathlon championship. It is also an oil-boom town located in the Russia’s richest administrative district. As such, it would seem to be a more reasonable place for winter resort development than the violence-plagued northern Caucasus.

*One prominent climate classification scheme, for example applies the subtropical label any place where the average temperature of the coldest month is between 6°C (42.8°F) and 18°C (64.4°F), while another uses the range between 2°C (35.6°F) and 13°C (55.4°F).

(Many thanks to Asya Pereltsvaig for translating Boris Nemtsov’s interview.)


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Dreams of a Circassian Homeland and the Sochi Olympics of 2014

Map of the Circassian Republics in Russia

Map of the Circassian Republics in RussiaThe resurgence of Circassian identity in recent years faces daunting obstacles. Many Circassians believe that the long-term sustainability of their community requires a return to the northwestern Caucasus, but both the Russian state and the other peoples of the region resist such designs. Circassians are thus focusing much of their efforts on global public opinion, building a protest movement in preparation for the Sochi Winter Olympics of 2014.

Requests by Circassian exiles to return to the Caucasus began to pour into Russian consulates not long after the expulsion of the community in the mid-1800s. Until the downfall of the Soviet Union in 1991, however, re-migration in any numbers was not feasible. In the early 1990s, however, thousands of Circassians from the Middle East managed to move back, although some later abandoned the effort, discouraged by the poverty of the region. Return migration slowed after the war in Chechnya heated up in the mid 1990s, and was again constricted in the early 2000s by the imposition of restrictive Russian laws. Would-be immigrants must abandon their foreign citizenship and learn the Russian language. Quotas are imposed as well. Local opposition by non-Circassians also inhibits the movement. The “Union of the Slavs,” founded in 1991, seeks to forestall any return, warning others that the Circassian returnees plan to overwhelm the region and then marginalize local Russians. The Union has also fought proposals to increase the autonomy of the existing Circassian-oriented Russian republics, only one of which, Kabardino-Balkaria, actually has a Circassian majority.

Map of Kuban CossacksCossacks have long been at the forefront of the anti-Circassian movement. Cossacks—Slavic-speaking people who had adopted the semi-nomadic lifestyle of the steppes—were instrumental in the expansion of the Russian Empire, and the northwestern Caucasus was no exception.  The Kuban Cossack Host, established on the edge of Circassian territory in the late 1700s, figured prominently in the Russo-Turkish (and Russo-Circassian) wars. During this long period, local Cossacks borrowed extensively from their Circassian enemies. Even the uniforms of Kuban (and Terek) Cossacks are a form of the traditional Caucasian garb known as “chokha.” Historical emulation, however, did not entail peaceful coexistence. When the Tsarist government decided to clear out the Circassians in the 1860s, the Cossacks were in the vanguard. Their assaults usually began with the mass theft of horses—according to a local adage, “a Circassian and a horse together cannot be defeated”—and ended with the burning of villages and the expulsion of the people. As a result, Cossack communities acquired some of the best lands in the northwestern Caucasus.

After the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Cossacks themselves became the victims of a fierce “decossackization” program. In an ironic twist, a number of Cossacks fled south from the Kuban region to avoid the purges and ended up assimilating with the Abkhazians, who are closely associated with the Circassians. With the fall of the Soviet Union, Kuban Cossack traditions and identity quickly rebounded. Mounting Circassian activism and return migration immediately after 1991 help provoke the re-militarization of local Cossack contingents, angering and often intimidating the other peoples of the region. According to a 2008 article by Fatima Tlisova, Cossacks now have a privileged position that they use against Circassians activists. Yet Cossack relations with the Abkhazians remain strong. A 2008 YouTube video about the Kuban Cossacks boasts that, “1500 Kuban Cossack volunteers are now serving in aid to Abkhaz freedom.”

Circassian activists have sought to enhance group solidarity by diminishing the differences among the various Circassian sub-groups. The Russian state has long divided the Circassians into four categories: the Kabardins, the Adyghe, the Cherkes, and the Shapsugs. (Three of these terms are reflected in the names of the three “Circassian,” or partly Circassian, Russian Republics: Republic of Adygea, Kabardino-Balkar Republic, and Karachay-Cherkess Republic.) Members of the Circassian community increasingly insist on the ethnonym “Adyghe” for the entire group, and they hope for the eventual unification of the Circassian parts of the three republics. A related movement involves the quest to craft a new literary trans-Circassian language, as currently two standardized official languages, Kabardian and Adyghe proper, co-exist within a broader continuum of local dialects.

The drive for unification encounters a potential snag in the Abazas and especially the Abkhazians. These peoples are historically and linguistically linked to the Circassians, but have generally been regarded as separate groups. Over the past several decades, the general tendency has been to try to fold all of the indigenous peoples of the northwestern Caucasus into one broad ethnic or national formation. More recently, however, tensions have mounted between Circassian and Abkhazian nationalists. Abkhazia is now a self-declared independent country of its own that functions as a client state of Russia, and Russia is seen as the main obstacle to Circassian unification.

A recent article suggests that tensions have arisen between Circassians and Abkhazians over Krasnya Polyana, the main skiing facility of the 2014 Winter Olympics. Some Abkhazian politicians have evidently claimed that Krasnya Polyana is rightfully Abkhazian, while Circassians view it as a monument to their own tragic history, the site of the last major battle in the Russian-Circassian war. In one sense, neither view is fully correct: before the expulsions of the 1860s, the larger Sochi area had been the home of the Ubykhs, the one northwestern Caucasian people to disappear entirely in the diaspora.

Circassian nationalists differ in their ultimate goals. Some demand nothing less than an independent Circassia blanketing the northwestern Caucasus, but others would be content with political and cultural autonomy within the Russian Federation, coupled with a right for members of the diaspora to return. Even these more limited aspirations, however, face long odds. The three nominally Circassian republics all have limited autonomy, two are officially shared with non-Circassian groups, and all include many Russians and other non-indigenous peoples. Such diversity makes for complex local politics, which often devolve into three-way struggles among Russians, Circassians, and Turkic groups such as the Balkars. Russian activists have tried to dismantle the nominally Circassian Republic of Adygea, situated near the middle of Krasnodar Krai. Circassian officials in Adygea subsequently attempted, without success, to annul the immigration quota for Circassian returnees, hoping to bolster their own numbers in the fragile republic.

Although their national ambitions face deep challenges, the Circassian community possesses many resources of its own. The diaspora includes many influential and wealthy persons. The proposed merging of Adygea and Krasnodar Krai, for example, was forestalled in part by the lobbying of Jordanian Circassians. The Circassian internet presence, moreover, is extensive and impressive, conveyed by many websites and YouTube productions. Yet as the lessons of “Virtual Tibet” show, it is extraordinarily difficult to translate internet activism into real political clout when faced with the concerted opposition of a powerful state.

Despite the sophistication of the Circassian outreach program, their cause has hardly penetrated into the consciousness of the global community. I doubt that one person in a thousand in the United States has any knowledge of the Circassian people. But I do anticipate an upsurge in both information and interest as the 2014 Winter Olympics approaches. Circassians view Sochi and especially the ski resort at Krasnya Polyana as the focal points of their tragic history, and they are already denouncing the upcoming “Genocide Olympics.” Sizable demonstrations against the event have occurred in Istanbul and other cities, and more are on the way. Olympic competitions have long served as theaters of political demonstration, and the Sochi event promises to be particularly theatrical.

Protests against the Sochi Olympics will likely draw on historical themes and motifs associated with the Circassian people. Although the Circassians are little-known in the West, that was not always the case. In the late 1800s the group was so famous that it inspired brand names, as we shall see in Monday’s post, the final offering on the Circassians.

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The World of Baseball — and of Tim Lincecum

The world map of major cricket-playing countries bears a close resemblance to the historical map of British imperial power. Does the map of baseball similarly follow the extension of American power abroad? A quick glance at the first map posted above shows that baseball’s domain is wide indeed, encompassing many countries that have hardly been touched by American might. But if one just looks at the dark-shaded “major baseball countries,” the story seems different. Although the formal possessions of the United States in the Caribbean have been limited to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, the rest of the region was considered to fall within the U.S. sphere of influence. American troops were periodically sent to a number of Caribbean countries, occupying the Dominican Republic, for example, from 1916 until 1924. The story is somewhat similar in East Asia, another major baseball zone. The United States occupied Japan for roughly decade after the Second World War, and still maintains large military bases in South Korea and Japan. One might therefore assume that the global spread of baseball is linked to the historical extension of American power abroad.

Such an assumption, however, would be incorrect. Baseball came to Japan, for example, as early as the 1870s, introduced by American missionaries and teachers. It was very popular well before WWII. Baseball diffused to Korea and Taiwan in the early 1900s when they were under Japanese rule. In East Asia, the map of baseball thus reflects the historical role of the Japanese Empire, not that of the United States. The game’s American roots, however, were not forgotten; North Korea banned baseball in the 1950s as the “sport of American imperialism.” Baseball returned to North Korea in the 1990s — by way of China. After the game was adopted in China, North Korean authorities decided that it was not so tainted after all.

Baseball came to the Caribbean through migration and cultural exchange. It was evidently introduced to Cuba in 1860 by Cubans returning from sojourns in the United States. According to Wikipedia, baseball’s quickly growing popularity came at the expense of the “patriotic” sport of bullfighting, unnerving Spanish colonial authorities. By subsequently banning baseball, they only ensured its domination, as the game “became symbolic of freedom and egalitarianism to the Cuban people.” Cuban migrants subsequently took the sport to the Dominican Republic and other Caribbean locales. In Venezuela, however, baseball was introduced in the early 20th century by Americans working in the oil industry. In contemporary Latin America, baseball is closely associated with the Spanish-speaking Caribbean region. In Colombia, it is played much more in the heavily Afro-Colombian northern lowlands than in the Andean core of the country. Even in Mexico, a disproportionate number of professional baseball teams are located on or near the Gulf of Mexico.

Baseball’s lack of an imperial legacy is also apparent in the areas where it failed to spread. The U.S. military occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934, yet the country isn’t even a member of the International Baseball Federation. The Philippines was under full US colonial rule for almost a half-century, and retained large U.S. military bases until 1991, yet Filipinos never really took to the game. The country does have a baseball league, but the sport is not widely played or followed. Basketball vastly overshadows it.

But if Filipinos care little for baseball, their attention was turned to the sport in late October and early November 2010. Philippine newspapers and television stations focused on one player in the World Series: San Francisco Giant’s pitching ace Tim Lincecum. Lincecum is certainly newsworthy. Beyond his throwing prowess, he attracts attention in the U.S. media for his breezy personality, colorful language, and extraordinary athleticism: Lincecum is called “the freak” mainly because of his uncanny ability to get so much power out of such a slight frame. With his long hair, misfit image, and arrest-record for marijuana, Lincecum makes an ideal sports hero for quirky San Francisco. But Philippine journalists care little for all of that; they are drawn to Lincecum simply because of his Filipino ancestry. Lincecum’s mother is Filipina-American, the daughter of poor immigrants who came to the United States as farm laborers. Filipino reporters have been disappointed that Lincecum does not stress his roots in their country, but they hold him up as someone for Filipinos to emulate. The Philippine Sports Commission will soon be inviting Tim Lincecum to visit “his grandparents’ country.”

The World of Baseball — and of Tim Lincecum Read More »

International Rivalries in Cricket

“Pakistan as a country is in serious trouble. It has just experienced the worst flood in memory. It is dominated by conflicts between the US and the Taliban and Al Qaeda… Pakistanis need something to escape from the harsh realities of day-to-day life. They need friends, they need help – and they need cricket.” – Dean Jones

“In the past five years, Pakistan has been accused of everything: match-fixing, spot-fixing, ball-tampering, drug offences. A coach died in suspicious circumstances. Then, worst of all, terrorists attacked a touring team. Pakistan has lost its right to jointly host the 2011 World Cup, which would have been a huge revenue raiser. Not now. And nobody really wants to play there.” – Dean Jones

The cricket world is now gearing up for its quadrennial world cup, to be held from March to May, 2011. The cup itself recently went on display in the Dubai Aquarium, Dubai being the headquarters of the International Cricket Council (ICC). The organization has come a long way since its 1909 founding, when, as the Imperial Cricket Conference, it included just England, South Africa and Australia. Next year’s world cup competitions will be held in South Asia, with games rotating among Sri Lanka, India, and Bangladesh. Pakistan has been debarred from hosting over security concerns and game-fixing scandals.

As is the case with rugby, international cricket is structured around the framework of sovereign states – with some notable exceptions. England and Scotland are separate members of the Cricket Council, while Ireland belongs as a unified island. Wales, however, does not enjoy separate membership, yet the Isle of Man does. The West Indies participates as a collectivity of disparate parts, encompassing ten sovereign states, three British dependencies, one U.S. dependency (U.S. Virgin Islands), and one island divided between a Dutch dependency and a French dependency (Saint Martin/Sint Maarten).

Despite being played over much of the world, cricket is dominated by a handful of countries. Since 1975, Australia has won four world cups, the West Indies two, and India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka one each. England has been runner-up three times, Australia twice, and India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and the West Indies once each.

The most intense rivalry in cricket pits India against Pakistan, a topic honored with its own Wikipedia article. As the author notes:

A loss at the hands of the other was (and still is) considered nothing less than a national failure. Instances of players’ homes being pelted after a match was lost are not uncommon. Over-zealous supporters even burn effigies of a losing team’s players or even of individual players that had simply performed less than well.

But the Indo-Pak sports rivalry can also be turned to peaceful purposes; when the two countries want to reduce tensions, cricket matches offer a good “confidence-building” measure. On November 2, 2010, noted India singer Kumar Sanu earned headlines – and jeers – by simply proclaiming that “music and cricket can bring Pakistan and India closer.” He noted that players such as Shahid Afridi and Virender Sehwag are “equally popular in both countries.”

Like rugby, cricket is spreading. China will be fielding a team at the Asian Games, scheduled for November 12-27, 2010 in Guangzhou China. Some South Asian fans are worried about the possibility of impending Chinese competition. As former Pakistani star Javed Miandad recently put it:

The Chinese are very quick learners. Just as an example, they have a player who until three months ago did not know what cricket was, he was completely clueless. But today he can bowl leg-breaks as good as many professional players. Their complete devotion to mastering anything is simply awesome.

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The Nations of Rugby; The World of Rugby

The significance of sports in structuring modern geographical relations is underappreciated by scholars. People, men especially, tend to bond with places through their identification with athletic teams. Following sports also teaches geography; as teams travel, so do their fans, vicariously. Even matters of geopolitical import can be initiated on the playing field. In 1969, a brief war between Honduras and El Salvador La guerra del fútbolwas sparked by a soccer contest. Several years later, the United States and China began to normalize their relationship over table-tennis tournaments, engaging in “ping-pong diplomacy.”

The organization of athletic conferences also sheds light on basic geographical categorization. The geographical units of sports are often distinctive, even at the national level: two-thirds of the “nations” – and “countries” of European rugby union* are not nations at all as the term is most commonly understood. Three are subdivisions – “constituent countries” of the United Kingdom: England, Scotland, and Wales. The fourth is as an amalgam, composed of one sovereign state (the Republic of Ireland) and another division of the U.K. (Northern Ireland).

The global distribution of sports partially reflects historical patterns of imperial rule. The cricket-playing world, as we will see later, largely follows the map of the late 19th century British Empire. In the case of rugby, a game formalized in an English boarding school of the same name, such linkages are not as obvious. Settler colonies certainly show up, especially South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia. Invisible on the map are the game’s ties to the British colonial sphere in the Pacific; Rugby is the most popular sport in Fiji, Samoa, and Tonga. The prevalence of rugby in Argentina is also connected to colonialism of a sort, as British investments in the country a hundred years age were so extensive that Argentina is often considered to have been part of Britain’s informal empire. But rugby did not spread to all British colonies, being little played in South Asia, the Caribbean, and the Anglophone parts of tropical Africa. Other countries, moreover, adopted rugby without a colonial connection to Britain. The game’s popularity in Georgia evidently stems from its similarities to an indigenous Georgian game.

Sport affiliations can divide countries as well as connect them. Australia, for example, is split by the so-called Barassi Line into two winter-sports zones. South and west of the line, Australian rules football dominates, whereas to the north and east, rugby rules. New South Wales and Queensland are thus linked to New Zealand in this regard rather than to the rest of Australia. But that could be changing. A November 9, 2010 article in the Otago Daily Times claims that Australian rules football is spreading in South Island New Zealand.

Australian rules football is rooted in, and quite similar to, Ireland’s Gaelic football. Irish and Australian football teams regularly play each other, but they have to adjust their rule to do so. The result in a hybrid game called “international rules football.” It too is spreading; October 23, 2010, saw the first match of such “compromise” football in Malmö, Sweden.

* “Rugby” refers to two separate games: rugby union and rugby league.

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People Per Goal & The Economic Geography of the World Cup

The group stage of the World Cup offered an opportunity for outliers on both ends of the spectrum of economic and population strength to compete on equal terms.

World Cup competitors have a mean population near 50,000,000 million. The median sits far below that at 22,578,572. The majority of the competing nations are of modest size, but the inclusion of hundred million plus superpowers like the USA, Brazil, and Nigeria significantly skew the mean.

The discrepancies in Per Capita GDP, are a little more muted than those in population, but mismatches, such as Ghana’s $ 1500 overcoming the USA’s $45,000 a year advantage. Sixteen of the top 50 countries in Per Capita GDP are represented at the World Cup. Honduras, Cameroon, Ghana, Ivory Coast, North Korea, and Paraguay had the chance to at least quintuple their respective countries’ Per Capita GDP Earnings from the $30,000 per player bonus for advancing to the knockout stage.

The mean per capita GDP for a country competing in this years world cup stands at 20441.44 Centers, well above the world average. Still, the twenty fifth percentile in Per Capita GDP for world cup competitors stood at $7574 USD, which is fairly close to the worldwide median in this category.

Now, considering the graphs above, take a look at the comprehensive performances of the participants in the World Cup during the Group Stage.

Which countries were the most efficient at producing goals per citizen? It seems the USA and Nigeria left far too many (goal)mouths to feed, while it takes the support of only a few thousand Uruguayans and Paraguayans are required to produce goals with their fascinating efficiency, well ahead of the world Average of 16976995 people per goal.

And how much, do we, the people, in theory pay to support these social structures that allow for these goals? The average citizen of a world cup participant nation earned 8361 dollars per goal their country scored. Not a bad haul, but it your country wasn’t scoring like North Korea, it may be off to the coal mines for a few years.

If Ghana can continue their impressive run, they’ll not only capture the hearts of all of Africa, but also cement their status as rather impressive statistical outlier, against the world’s remaining industrial superpowers and population centers. Its one of the few times where we can say that the world’s rich and the poor truly compete on a level playing field.

You can play with all the World Cup figures and selected CIA World Factbook information more in this spreadsheet. Feel free to import more data, and share your graphs and findings in the comments section. Bonus points awarded for the craziest regression line.

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