Predicting the 2040 Olympics medal table
August 10th, 2012
10:07 AM ET

Predicting the 2040 Olympics medal table

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.

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Topics: Brazil • China • Demographics • Japan • Sports • United States • What in the World?

soundoff (66 Responses)
  1. Madhu S Vashist

    Fareed is only making a point that there are certain factors which contribute to medal tally vs talent. Motivation is another one in addition to resources. Some countries will fare better than they are today. I have porblem with Michael Phelps getting so many medlas vs Basketball players only getting a part of a medal. I think some sports are different and if you allocate your national planning to some sports you can alwasy win more golds/medals.

    August 13, 2012 at 8:23 am | Reply
  2. steeplechaser marathoner

    Fareed, please come back and enlighten us with your incisive commentaries and predictions

    August 13, 2012 at 9:02 am | Reply
  3. SV

    You are dead wrong about India, Fareed. Thanks to Indian govt, Indians will never be allowed to perform better in sports.
    Look at our boxer Mary Kom. She didnt even have proper food for last 5 years. Its not just about poverty.
    Indian govt doesnt do enough/nothing to encourage sports. Required infrastructure is clearly missing.
    So a gymnast or a swimmer or a diver isnt going to come out of India.
    We have bigger problem Fareed. Big cities in India are running out of Water. Food inflation is sky rocketing.
    Life is very tough. So normal man cant afford to train for a specific sport. We are busy trying to survive.
    So Olympics will continue to remain a distant dream.

    August 13, 2012 at 9:44 am | Reply
  4. dicted2x

    True that for India, if they can overcome their population and illiteracy problems first....

    August 14, 2012 at 7:36 am | Reply
  5. trebor12

    Hmm, 2040 isn't so far ahead – it's less than 30 years away and we are nearer to it than 1983. For India to finish second in the medals table at the 2040 Olympics (wherever this is), a cultural sea change will need to take place. Cricket is the overwhelming sport at present, and right now every single Indian boy wants to play cricket – they're not interested in football (soccer), rugby, cycling, swimming, or athletics........just cricket, and perhaps abit of hockey. This has to change. Also am I right in thinking that Indian girls are actively discouraged from playing sports as sport is considered a masculine thing in India.

    Add to this mix, the crippling poverty levels throughout the country – worse than any South American country and many African countries, and the extremely high illiteracy levels, and this is why India flopped so badly at the 2012 Games. They need to overcome every single one of these obstacles if they are to ever realise their goal of finishing second in the medals table in 2040, as right now they're nowhere near good enough to get a top 20 place let alone runners up spot.

    I also think that because of all these problems India has, and the fact that Cricket 'crushes' all other sports, we won't see an Indian city hosting the summer Olympics until 2040 at the earliest. I think they will get the 2048 Games – as this would be a fitting time for India, being 100 years after independence.

    My Olympic Cities predictions

    2020 – Istanbul or Tokyo
    2024 – Melbourne or Toronto
    2028 – a European City....Paris, St Petersburg, or Rome
    2032 – a Far East City....Tokyo (if not 2020), or Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia)
    2036 – a US city......Chicago, Boston, or San Francisco
    2040 – an African city......Cape Town, Nairobi (Kenya), or Casablanca (Morocco)
    2044 – Melbourne (if not 2024) or a European City.....see earlier entry, or maybe Milan, plus cities like Lisbon...or even Naples (if it cleans up its act)
    2048 – Mumbai.......finally an Indian city! ...they might even top the medals table this year and see off China – but they need to start changing now in 2012, not wait for another 10 years before starting to embrace other sports.

    August 14, 2012 at 5:40 pm | Reply
  6. maclke

    if spelling becomes a sport then india has a chance

    August 17, 2012 at 10:54 pm | Reply
  7. nickyc

    "buy some more African athletes". What are you talking about? The only British athlete with a connection to Africa is Mo Farah and his dad is British born and bred. He met Mo's mum when on holiday in Somalia. They initially settled there but when Mo was eight his dad decided to bring his family home to Britain. Point being Mo was a Brit by birth and has lived here most of his life.

    August 19, 2012 at 5:52 pm | Reply
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  13. Roma

    Fareed is a lunatic. India?

    September 30, 2012 at 8:00 pm | Reply
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