CERTAIN COUNTRIES seem to have a knack for success at particular sports. Australia excels at swimming, Brazil at beach volleyball, Cuba at boxing and Britain at sailing. The Olympic games, with its hundreds of medal events across myriad sporting disciplines, is a test of countries’ all-round sporting prowess. The 32nd Olympic games in Tokyo ended on August 8th with American athletes taking home more medals than any other country. Team USA has topped the Olympic medals table in 16 of the past 24 games, and in every year since 1992 (we prefer medal points won as the metric of success, which gives three points for a gold medal, two for silver and one for a bronze).
This dominance of the Olympic games may appear unassailable, but during the cold war America vied with the Soviet Union for supremacy. Between 1952 and 1992 the Soviet Union beat America in six of the nine games in which the two countries went head-to-head (newly-independent Soviet states competed as a single team in 1992). On paper, it should not have been much of a match: although the USSR’s population was a sixth larger than America’s, estimates of its economic output put its GDP at one-quarter that of its rival. But athletes from the USSR and other Eastern bloc countries benefited from a vast allocation of resources to sports and state-sponsored doping programmes.
Since 2008 America’s closest rival on the podium has been China. In 1988, the second Olympics it competed in, it came ninth in the medals table, taking 3.5% of the medal points. China’s increasing dominance since has gone hand-in-hand with its rising economic clout. Since 2000 the country has not placed lower than third.
An analysis by The Economist finds that economics determines much of Olympic glory. We tested the relationship between a battery of variables—population, health, education and economic output—and the share of Olympic medals won in each Olympic games. We found that share of world GDP was the single biggest factor in determining success. GDP alone explains 55% of the variation in Olympic medals won since 1960. On average, holding other things constant, a two percentage-point share of global GDP (measured at purchasing-power parity) translates to a three percentage-point share of Olympics medals.
Some countries overperform at the Olympics relative to their economic output. Among the 71 countries that have won more than 10 Olympic medals since 1992, each gold medal cost the equivalent of $120m of GDP (dividing the weighted total of medals won by GDP measured in 2011 prices). American gold medals cost nearly double the average, at about $200m of GDP. Jamaica does best: each gold medal won by one of its athletes is equivalent to about $3m of its economic output. Way behind is India, which performs dismally compared with what might be expected from its share of economic output (currently 7%). Each medal won by India’s athletes is equivalent to a whopping $3.5bn of its GDP.
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