How to predict Olympic medal totals
July 27th, 2012
10:08 AM ET

How to predict Olympic medal totals

By Julia Bredtmann, Carsten J. Crede and Sebastian Otten

Editor’s note: Julia Bredtmann, Carsten Crede and Sebastian Otten are researchers in economics at the Ruhr University Bochum, Germany. The views expressed are solely those of the authors.

The world’s biggest sporting event, this year involving athletes from more than 200 nations, officially opens in London today. But while much of the focus will be on the feats of individuals over the next 17 days, there’s always another competition going on too – the one between countries for the most Olympic medals.

In the lead up to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China dedicated more than $4.5 billion to supporting sports in an effort to supplant the United States as the world’s sporting superpower. Similarly, as the Economist noted back in 2008, the British government has ramped up spending by investing in and supporting its elite athletes. But is Olympic glory all about the money?

Using data on the number of medals won by each country at the summer Olympics from 1960 to 2008, we tried to identify the economic, demographic, and cultural factors that explain a country’s Olympic success – and to have a go at making our own predictions for London, too.

We settled on a range of indicators based on several sources, including the International Labor Organization and the World Bank. And, in line with findings from previous research, our analysis unsurprisingly indicated that money does indeed play an important role in Olympic success: wealthy countries win more Olympic medals than countries with comparatively low per capita income. Less money, it seems, makes it difficult to operate efficient support systems for talented athletes.

However, there’s more to being at the top than money alone. Populous countries clearly tend to have a larger number of talented athletes than small countries and therefore win, on average, a higher number of medals. But political systems also have an influence on athletic success: countries with socialist systems often dedicate significant resources to the development of top athletes in order to increase their international prestige and distract from domestic political issues. And, to a certain extent, countries with a socialist past still profit from previous investments and receive a higher number of medals even today.

But there’s more. Another factor is the famous home advantage: host countries’ athletes are generally more likely than usual to end up on the podium than if they aren’t hosting. This home advantage kicks in even before the games start as home athletes of the next host reap the benefits of the early expansion of sporting support.

Another factor is the climate of the home country – poor training conditions mean athletes from countries with a more extreme climate are overall at a disadvantage compared with participants from moderate climates, especially in outdoor events. Tropical climates, meanwhile, have been shown to have a particularly adverse impact on athletes’ performance, perhaps due to the high incidence of certain diseases, which undermines the general health level of the population.

Interestingly, though,the medal tallies of men and women over the years offers some insights into gender-specific determinants of Olympic success. Women from countries with emancipated societies, for example, and who are more likely to have equal opportunities in the workforce, typically win a higher number of medals than those who come from patriarchal societies. Female labor force participation rates, fertility rates and the number of years since women were given the right to vote are all factors that can help determine success. Essentially, the more women are free to participate in society and economic life, the more likely they are to be engaged in sports and offered the support they need to become top athletes.

So, based on all this information, who can we expect to come out on top in London? We predict that China will narrowly edge the U.S. in the overall medal tally, with 102 medals compared to 100 for America. Some way back in third place we expect to see Russia, with 71 medals. The British and Brazilian teams, with current and future home team advantage, can be expected to earn 57 and 28 medals, respectively.

Of course, the global financial crisis has been a painful reminder of how economic models can have the rug pulled from under them. In addition, while the factors we mentioned offer a useful guide, there are some outliers such as Kenya or Jamaica, whose success at the 2008 Olympic Games wouldn’t have been predicted by the model we used. But one of the great joys of the Olympics is that it’s impossible to control every factor that can lead to success for individuals.

The predictions we have made this year are exactly that – predictions. But although our model isn’t perfect, when applied to the 2004 and 2008 Olympics, the correlation between our prediction and the actual medals table was 97.4 percent and 96.9 percent.

All this said, the medals table may ultimately prove of secondary interest. As Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, stated: “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win, but to take part.”  But for those of us who will be keeping count, here are our final predictions:

1. China (102 medals), 2. United States (100), 3. Russia (71), 4. UK (57), 5. Australia (43), 6. France (39), 7. Germany (36), 8. South Korea (31), 9. Cuba (29), 10. Brazil (28), 11. Ukraine (28), 12. Italy (27), 13. Japan (27), 14. Belarus (19), 15. Spain (19).

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Topics: China • Economy • Health • Sports • United States

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