Amanda Ripley

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Olympic Predictions

13th Aug 2012 posted in Education

Economists, it turns out, can predict Olympic medal counts with uncanny accuracy. They don’t get the exact figures right, but they get weirdly close to predicting the ranking of countries worldwide—well before the Opening Ceremonies.

First let’s just acknowledge that there is something irritating about this; aren’t the Olympics supposed to be games of chance and romance? Economists do not belong in the Olympics. Is no place sacred?

And yet. In June, PricewaterhouseCoopers issued an economic briefing paper (pdf here) that modeled the performance of countries based on 4 critical characteristics:

1. Population
2. Income
3. Host country
4. Whether the country was once part of the Soviet bloc

I would have guessed the first two inputs, but the last two are more surprising—and help explain the outliers in the medal counts finalized yesterday with the closing of the London Olympics.

The model made some mistakes: the U.S. won 9 fewer medals than predicted, and Japan won 10 more. But the model did predict the ranking order, more or less, prophesying that the U.S. would come in first, followed by China, Russia and Great Britain—in that order. And that is exactly what happened.

The host country, as the model had foreshadowed, got a heady boost. Why? The economists say this is partly this is due to the greater investments that countries make in their Olympic teams when they know they are going to host. I suspect other more subtle forces are at work, too; there is a great psychological advantage to playing on the home court, after all. Imagine the thrill of having all those royals cheering for you—just a short distance from all those hooligans!

But interestingly, the home-court advantage varies depending on the country (China saw a huge bump when it hosted in 2008, winning 37 more medals than it had in Athens, but Greece only won 3 additional medals compared to its performance in Sydney).

The dominance of former Soviet bloc countries might be the most mysterious pattern of all. The economists explain this as a historical relic—a lingering Cold War respect for sports and Olympic triumph that motivates countries to invest and athletes to perform. They also see this as a victory for public policy, which is kind of adorable:

“This shows that sport is one area where state planning and intervention can produce results, which still persisted in Beijing almost two decades after the fall of the Berlin wall. However…these effects are gradually fading for the ex-Soviet countries, except for China which still has a strong state policy of promoting Olympic sport.”

Of course, try as I might, I can’t help but look at this ranking of medals and compare it to the ranking of education around the world. There is not a lot of overlap; the smartest countries in the world are not necessarily the most athletic and vice versa, as the U.S. has shown time and time again.

However, there are a few countries that perform exceptionally well—in mind and body. They are not the ones that spend the most per student (or per athlete). They are the ones that care a lot about both sports and learning, for whatever combination of reasons, and have the results to prove it:

Japan (No. 6 in the world in Olympic medals 2012; No. 6 in the world on PISA math 2009)

Australia (No. 7 in the world in medals; No. 12 in the world in math)

South Korea (No. 9 in the world in medals; No. 2 in math)

Netherlands (No. 11 in the world in medals; No. 8 in math)

Compare that to the U.S: No. 1 in the world in medals…and No. 26 in math. Something doesn’t add up; and all the king’s economists and all the king’s models can’t entirely explain it, try as they might.