Athletes from Rich Countries Most Likely to Win at Olympics

Beijing’s Olympic People Cage…err, Stadium

With the Beijing Olympics in the not-too-distant future, I decided to find out more about the economics involved in hosting any Olympic Games.

Instead, I found an old BBC article claiming that rich countries’ athletes always perform best in the games. A pair of Harvard economists concluded that rich countries, along with ruling everything else in the world, rule the Olympic games.

Researching five decades of statistical information on GDP, “political factors such as multi-party democracy,” geographical factors such as average temps, and past Olympic performance, the economists came to the following conclusions:

Although there are certain anomalies – notably impoverished but sporty Romania – rich countries always perform best.

An extra medal costs $1,700, and a gold $4,750, in terms of per-capita wealth.

The Olympics, it seems, is an expensive business: to send an extra competitor, a country has to increase its GDP per head by $260.

The richer the country, the cheaper the marginal cost of improvement
: Poland would have to spend four times as much per head as would the US, in order to boost its presence at the games.

Out of all the 241 countries in the Olympic family, fewer than half have ever won a medal of any kind at either the winter or summer games.

Despite their success at track and field events, all African nations combined still accounted for less than 2% of the total medals haul at the Sydney Olympics.

The countries most disproportionately represented at Olympics
– in terms of the number of athletes per head of population – are the Seychelles in summer, and Iceland in winter.

Rich countries send proportionally more female competitors than poor ones: for every extra $1,000 of GDP, the average nation sends an extra two female athletes.

(James Arnold, “The Economics of the Olympic Games,” BBC Online, 2/14/02)

I think China will be doing pretty well this time around—not only because they’re huge and they’re hosting the Games, but because they have correlative GDP to these days to land some serious medals.

And, theoretically, their athletes are accustomed to Beijing’s chewable air.

I wonder what additional surprises Beijing ’08 will bring…