The Medal Count


by Patrick Appel

Tyler Cowen and Kevin Grier attribute Olympic victories to a nation's population and wealth. Their prediction about the future:

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.

Steve Sailer disagrees:

It looks to me more like the countries that win a lot of medals are the countries that A) want to win a lot of medals and B) are pretty competent at what they do. … Moreover, it helps to have a lot of power and tradition to get your favorite sports treated well by the Olympics. You'll notice, for instance, that the Olympics hand out a ton of swimming medals, which benefit the U.S. and Australia in the medal counts.

Along the same lines, Max Fisher ponders India's underperformance:

[T]hough India has an enormous population, its "effectively participating population" in athletics is much smaller, according to a paper by economists Anirudh Krishna and Eric Haglund. Huge swathes of India's 1.2 billion, when it comes to international athletics, effectively don't count. They're excluded by poor childhood health, physical isolation by poor transportation from the athletics centers in the big cities, or often because they simply are not sufficiently aware of the Olympics or the sports involved. Even the lack of connectedness across Indian communities may play a role, as the idea of competing for national prestige just doesn't carry the same appeal or logic. It's not just that so many Indians are poor, in other words, it's that India itself is so socially and physically fragmented. 

Taking GDP, population, and number of competing athletes into account, Seth Masket finds either North Korea or Hungary in the lead.

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