By CATHERINE RAMPELL
Olympic sports are, at least in theory, supposed to be a meritocracy. Year after year, though, richer countries do better, probably because of some combination of better nutrition and more money to throw at expensive training, among other factors.
Money doesn’t affect medal counts in all sports equally, though. That is because some sports are not especially expensive to train for (triathlons, as opposed to sailing), and because country-specific qualities (like culture, demographics or geography) may be more important than income in certain events.
In a new report on the economics of the Olympics, José Ursúa and Kamakshya Trivedi, two Goldman Sachs analysts, looked at the effects that income has on medal tallies in specific sports, without controlling for country-specific qualities (like Japan’s always being good at judo).
Goldman Sachs Note: Results from panel regressions; sample: 1956-2008; dependent variable is sum of gold, silver and bronze medals; period and time fixed effects; italics denote cases of less than 10 percent significance. Independent variables are log (gross domestic product per capita) and its square, ratio of income to the United States, democracy, and dummy for host. Income effect based on one standard deviation increase over median. Source: Sports Reference, Penn World Tables, Polity IV Project, GS Global ECS Research.
The table above refers to total medal counts from about 150 countries over the course of Olympic Games from 1956 to 2008. Analysts looked at a set of variables — including gross domestic product per capita, the ratio of income to that of the United States, democracy, and whether the country was the host of the Games — and their relationship with medals awarded.
The first column shows how closely those variables put together are associated with medals awarded in a particular sport. A higher value in that column represents a stronger influence of these factors. As you can see, the biggest effects are in canoeing, diving, fencing, swimming and table tennis.
The second column shows the impact from an increase in gross domestic product per capita of one standard deviation above its median. With this increase in income, a country could expect to receive 0.5 to 1 more medal per game in events like cycling, judo, rowing and swimming, for example. In some sports, though, this income increase doesn’t affect medal counts much, as in weightlifting, diving and rhythmic gymnastics.
Host countries also historically win many more medals than they do when they’re not the host: On average over the last 10 Olympic Games, the host country has won 54 percent more medals than it has won in years when it was not the host. The researchers decided to isolate the hosting effect by sport, too.
The third column shows how many more medals a country typically racks up when it hosts the games, all else being equal. Countries typically score unusually well in cycling, gymnastics, rowing, sailing, swimming and wrestling in years when they are the host, gathering 1.5 to 3 additional medals in a single Olympics in each of those sports.
Being the host seems to have little effect on other sports, like triathlons and canoeing. Maybe it’s harder for a host country to quickly ramp up investment in training for those sports than it is for other events, for some reason.