By Fareed Zakaria
I’ve been in London this week, and I couldn’t help but catch the Olympics bug. The Games are the ultimate meritocracy – or so it seems. But why do some countries win lots of medals? Do they have more talented people than others? We’ve spent some time looking at the data.
A few trends are clear.
Countries with large populations tend to do well. Logic suggests that the more people you have, the more likely you are to have a few excellent athletes. In the 2008 Beijing Games, China was the runaway leader with 51 gold medals. The United States came second, but it won the most medals overall with 110. The two countries are of course among the three most populous in the world.
The data is similar for previous few Games. In 2004 in Athens, the U.S. and China together bagged 68 golds. At Sydney 2000, the two were in the top three, separated only by Russia – which is the ninth most populous country. Looking further back in 1996, China was in 4th place, behind not only the U.S. and Russia, but also Germany – another country with a large population.
But a country like India contradicts this theory. It is the second-most populous country in the world, and yet it has won only two gold medals between 1960 and 2000. Now, there may be specific reasons for India’s lackluster performance, but mostly, you can put this down to wealth – despite its rapid growth, India has a very low per capita GDP.
Again, looking at the tables from the Beijing games, the top eight nations have pretty high average incomes. The more discretionary income people have, the more likely societies are to spend time, money, efforts on sports. The clear outlier here is of course China, with the lowest GDP per capita (though still three times that of India's). Here we come to the authoritarian exception. Authoritarian governments tend to be able to disproportionately allocate resources towards sports. Look at China’s success in developing badminton players and swimmers or Kazakhstan’s exploits in weightlifting. The former Soviet Union was the perfect example. It marshaled tremendous resources during the Cold War to rack up medals and thus demonstrate the vitality of its economic and political model – it won the most golds in three consecutive Games starting in 1972. And look also at Cuba – in 2008, it won more medals than did its vastly larger and richer neighbor Brazil.
A number of economists have tried their hand at predicting how many medals countries will win this year. Well, I'm going to make some predictions for the distant future. Let’s call it the 2040 Games, perhaps in Lagos, Nigeria.
Emerging markets will get better and better. Look at this chart of medals won by those countries since 1984. From less than a quarter of medals at the Los Angeles Olympics, emerging markets now win more than half of all medals. That trend will continue. But here’s a twist: China has already peaked. Population matters, but so, too, does demographics. One in four Chinese will be above the age of 65 by 2050. That’s the same number you see right now in Japan, and Japan has seen declining returns over the last few Olympic Games. By the same token, countries with dynamic, young populations and fast-growing economies are likely to do better.
So my prediction for 2040 is this: the top medal winners will be the United States, India, China, Indonesia, and Brazil – in that order.