The economics of Olympic success

Here is my new Grantland piece with Kevin Grier.  Excerpt:


1. Medal totals will become more diversified over time. The market share of the “top 10” countries will continue to fall (it was 81 percent in 1988) as economic and population growth slows in the rich world. The developing world has greater room for rapid economic growth, and most parts of the developing world also have higher population growth. The Olympic playing field will get more and more level.

2. Japan will continue to fade, mostly because of aging and population shrinkage.

3. Italy will follow Japan for similar demographic reasons, as well as because the Eurozone crisis will continue to cut into budgets, training and otherwise.

4. Since Rio is host to the next Olympics, Brazil should do better than expected due to the “pre-host” bump.

5. Many African nations will rise. Currently about half of the approximately 1 billion people in Africa have a cell phone, and the middle class is growing. The chance that an African star will be spotted and trained at the appropriate age is much higher than before. Africa also continues to grow in population, and that means lots of young people. Most of us still think of African nations as very poor, but infant mortality has been falling and per-capita income rising across Africa for the better part of a decade now.

6. China will level off and then decline as a medal powerhouse. In less than 15 years, the typical person living in China is likely to be older on average than the typical person living in the United States, in part due to the country’s one-child policy. As of 2009 the number of over-60s was 167 million, about an eighth of the population, but by 2050 it is expected to reach 480 million people older than 60, with the number of young Chinese falling. The country will become old before it is truly wealthy.

7. Bob Costas will make you cry.


Japan's no 3 at the moment, but whatever.

Don't bring up facts - they ruin predictions.

It's still early days, isn't it?

It may be worth noting that North Korea has more medals than all african countries, though:
Of course only two of them have medals as of now.

Anyone using demographics to explain Olympic medals is faced with how to explain away China's truckload against India's trickle.

Don't bring up facts - they ruin predictions.

(It bears worth repeating - and an addendum beats the filter)

How much does India invest in its Olympic program compared to China? I'd be impressed if they spent more than 1/100th the money and resources.

India has a long way to go in "talent devleopment"

@Nicoli / Bluto

That's precisely my point: demographics alone is not a big factor in predicting Olympic tallys.

Here's a quick graph I made of the total medal tally of the last Olympics versus population.

Lot of high population (developing) countries are grossly under-performing. (Sorry couldn't figure a quick way to label the countries)


I wasn't disagreeing with you. As much as Tyler and and Kevin want to cite demographics, national policy matters more when it comes to winning medals because winning is heavily dependent on state supported training programs. China will continue to do well as long as it prioritizes medals while other countries do not though shifting demographics might force it to change its spending priorities.

Unsurprisingly, the authors actually thought of this issue. The article spends quite a bit of time on the China vs. India question.

Mongolia and Slovenia also have twice as many medals as India.

The track and field events haven't yet begun.

Yes, the schedule causes some countries to win their medals early in the Olympics, other countries' medals will come later.

I was going to observe that traditional powerhouse Germany had been languishing in something like 12th place in the medal count, but I see they're now up to 4th. So once again, the early distribution of medals can be misleading, unless one takes the schedule into account.

Of Japan's 17 medals, 14 are in either swimming (which is already almost over) or judo (if you actually read the article, this would make you snicker).

Most of those are bronze. Google search for "medal count" and you will see then down at #12 with weighting. (Which is probably 5-3-1 or 3-2-1 for gold-silver-bronze, as other sports agencies have chosen in the past.)

'The chance that an African star will be spotted and trained at the appropriate age is much higher than before.'
Or not - especially as GMU was a path breaker in that area - check back around the later 1980s and the track team and runners from (wait for it) - Somalia.

From Wikipedia -
'Bile graduated from George Mason University with a BS in marketing management. At George Mason, Bile was team captain and a two-time NCAA Division I 1,500 meter champion, winning his first title in 1985 (3:41.2) and the second in 1987 (3:35.79). He also won many conference titles and held the inter-collegiate 1500 m record for more than ten years. He was coached by John Cook, the former coach of 2008 Olympic 10,000 meter bronze medalist Shalane Flanagan. His career was riddled with injuries, and he missed the 1991 World Championships as well as the 1988 and 1992 Olympics because of such problems. In 1996 he finished 6th in the Olympic 1500 m final.'

However, I have this tiny, sneaky suspicion that American universities are no longer recruiting world class runners from Somalia - the undoubted mound of DHS paperwork alone (not to mention all the secret lists which various agencies maintain according to secret laws which American judges are rarely allowed to even glimpse for an hour in their chambers) outweighs all the advantage of Africans having cell phones.

Why does he call you LeBron?

The Olympics manage the herculean feat of making even American spectator sports seem less dull. Though nothing that I can imagine could make Grand Prix racing less dull.

NBC just shows the wrong sports. Handball and table tennis are hugely exiting.
And stock car racing manages to make F1 seem exiting just fine.

Climate could affect which countries do well in the olympics. One reason Australia does well is probably because it is warm enough for everyone who has the desire to train all year round without too many days when the temperature gets hot enough to melt brains. As the number of brain melty days a year increases, already hot countries could find themselves at a disadvantage. South Africa and Kenya might do okay because of their highlands but a lot of African countries will be brain melty enough of the time to cause real problems with training. Of course if the olympics are held in brain melty location at a brain melty time, then they might do okay.

I guess I disagree with almost all of the points that you make here. It reflects a gross misunderstanding of the individual Olympic sports and where large numbers of medals can be won (hint: it's not in the team sports!). African countries have done fairly well in track and field ever since the break through in 1968. Distance events in particular but Ghana has developed some good sprinters over time. It's hard to see Africa doing well in other sports given the total lack of history (are you waiting for African swimmers, gymnasts, fencers, rowers, etc?). Euro countries with their tradition in many sports will not disappear nor will they see a general falling off (good example here is international soccer which with the exception of Brazil is dominated by Euro countries which dispels your argument as well). Athletes find a way to train regardless of the economic or population demographics. Sure China will be an aging country at some point in the future but there will still be millions of young athletes in the talent pool to draw from.

With respect to Brazil, they are good in some team sports but where is the "bump" going to come from? They have never been a major force in track and field or swimming. As to the major indoor team and individual sports (with the exception of volleyball and basketball) they are a non-entitity.

This was a pretty useless post.

Your comment exhibits a distinct lack of reading the article. All of your main complaints are discussed in depth therein.

Orange14, important to note that Olympics soccer is very different than regular international soccer. Thus, you get Japan, South Korea, Mexico, and Brazil in the London finals-and World Cup and back to back EuroCup champions Spain didn't make it out of group play. In Beijing-only Belgium from Europe was in the final four-and they are anything but a traditional European power.

Counterpoint: Norway, Winter Olympics.

Serious question for Tyler -- how did you get invited to start contributing for Grantland? Their cast of writers seems young, liberal, and mostly on the west coast, so I'm wondering if there's a cool story or something behind your contribution.

The post says "As of 2009 the number of over-60s was 167 million, about an eighth of the population, but by 2050 it is expected to reach 480 million people older than 60, ... ". Is that 2050 number an eight? a quarter? a third? I assume the ratio is increasing.

Can someone come up with a theory why Japan is winning so many Bronze medals?

They have a lot of athletes coming in 3rd place. Next question!

The Japanese are merely trying to stay happy........

"In 1995, a study was carried out by social psychologists Victoria Medvec, Scott Madey and Thomas Gilovich on the effects of counterfactual thinking on the Olympics. The study showed that athletes who won the bronze medal were significantly happier with their winning than those athletes who won the silver medal. The silver medalists were more frustrated because they had missed the gold medal, while the bronze medalists were simply happy to have received any honors at all"

Let's call Japan the reverse China. China focuses a lot of resources on obscure sports. This produces a lot of winners and not a lot of second or third place finishers, because the number of athletes from any one country is capped and because China places special emphasis on winning rather than finishing well more generally. Japan, on the other hand, is competing in two categories of sports: (a) highly competitive sports where any given medalist has about equal odds of getting a gold, silver or bronze and other sports; and (b) sports whose winners are dominated by China (or some other similar country with a highly effective strategy for maximizing the number of gold medals won). Putting (a) and (b) together, we would expect Japan to win fewer golds than silver or bronzes. Indeed, we would expect Japan to win more bronzes than any other, because many events have a two athlete per country cap, leaving the bronze to Japan.

The country that's really excelling at the Bronzes is France.

it is considered offensive and unseemly to win anything greater.

The Japanese media traditionally puts unbelievable amounts of pressure on prospects to win one for the nation -- e.g., the Japanese marathoner in the 1960s who committed suicide before the Olympics because he knew he'd let the country down. Japanese golfers who are in contention after three rounds of a major championship are besieged by their home country press and generally melt down under the pressure. I think Japanese athletes have been dealing with the media pressure a little better lately, but it was a major problem in the 1980s and 1990s.

Canada was far and away the big bronze medal winner in London (12 to 5 silver and 1 gold). Can the same explanations be made for Canada as for Japan?

Even though he himself can't move a single facial muscle!

Brazil is failing big this year...

Another issue is that countries whose sports interests are diversified, such as China by government fiat or Australia by culture, will tend to do better than countries where the male population is obsessed by a handful of sports, typically soccer. Despite Brazil's large population, for instance, it's culture's focus on soccer doesn't leave a lot left over to devote to obscure sports.

Within the U.S., Californians traditionally dominated medals totals because of California's similarities with Australia: healthy, wealthy, sunny, and California has a diversified sporting culture that's not monomaniacal about, say, American football the way, say, Texas is.

Texans like football and all, but Texans like baseball and basketball, too. Carl Lewis got famous at U of H and Mary Lou Retton trained with Karolyi in Houston. Clint Dempsey, one of the US decent soccer players, is from Nacogdoches. Lance Armstrong is from Plano. That's a pretty mixed group.

Carly Patterson and Nastia Lukien in Gymnastics, Michael Johnson in track, Deron Williams in basketball, Dana Vollmer in swimming...all from Texas.

It’s much easier for a country to win medals in a women’s sport than in a men’s sport, except for the handful of sports that females really care about, such as gymnastics and figure skating in the Winter Olympics. The ROI on investing in women’s sports is much higher because few young females are intensely self-motivated to become athletes. So a society that decides to devote resources to training females in a particular sport can enjoy a lot of success, such as in women’s golf, where Sweden did well in the recent past and South Korea today.

Before intensive drug testing began after 1988, it was especially easier to win women’s medals by giving artificial male hormones to women, as East Germany did with so much success from 1976 through 1988. Women get a bigger bang per buck of steroids than men do because they start out with about 1/10th as much natural male hormones. So, men were more likely to get caught by early steroids tests because they to take more to get the same relative effect: e.g., in 1988, men's 100m gold medalist Ben Johnson got caught but women's 100m gold medalist Flo-Jo didn't.

The most likely reason Jamaica won so many sprint medals in 2008 was because American authorities sent 2000 Olympic heroine Marion Johnson to prison in 2005 related to performance-enhancing drug cheating, thus scaring more American athletes straight(er).

Is there much evidence that African countries are getting better at winning men's Olympic medals? Sure, it sounds plausible in theory, but where's the evidence? Ethiopia has been winning distance running medals since 1960 and Kenya since 1964, so this isn't exactly a hot, late-breaking trend. In the sprints, the African Diaspora continues to do better than African themselves.

My guess is that as more Africans get television in their homes, they'll become even more obsessed with soccer and the World Cup rather than with the Olympics. Soccer experts have been predicting an African breakthrough in the World Cup for a long time now, but it hasn't happened yet.

"Medal totals will become more diversified over time."

My prediction is that the Summer Olympics will become even more like the Winter Olympics: a refuge for the global upper middle class, who have the resources to pick obscure sports for their scions and pay for intensive tutoring as a path to get them into American colleges.

In contrast, the burgeoning ranks of the global poor, especially in Africa, will obsess over a handful of big money sports, especially soccer.


The post talks about China and Africa but leaves out India, and rightly so. Indians are so obsessed about cricket that they really do not consider any other sport worth cultivating

This. If cricket was an olympic sport (and why it isnt is beyond me, given its global popularity) india would certainly medal in it

Cricket was in the 1900 Olympics. France(!!) won Silver , not very difficult since only 2 teams participated. Britain won the match. There are efforts to include the shorter form (Twenty20 cricket) in the 2020 Olympics . India is a wildly unpredictable team , so though they stand a good chance , there is no guarantee of medalling. If lightning chess was an event , Anand could have brought India a Gold..

Analysis of the London 2012 medals by population, GDP, and size of delegation:

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