Denver: If you want to know how many gold medals the US or competitors China and Russia will win at the Summer 2008 Olympics, don’t ask the sports nuts. Talk to economist Daniel Johnson. There’s about a 95% chance he’ll be right.
The Colorado College professor’s mathematical formula—one based on factors such as wealth and politics, and not on athletic ability—has come eerily close to nailing down the final medal count for the last four Olympic Games.
“Why are the top 10 medaling nations top 10?” he asked. “It’s not that athletic prowess is completely independent from wealth and population. These nations have more resources at their disposal.”
The model, which was concocted by Johnson and former student assistant Ayfer Ali in 1999 at Harvard, also considers a country’s climate and the advantages of hosting.
This year, a booming economy and polluted air will help China take home the most gold medals—44 to be exact.
“China has the positive end of all the factors,” said Johnson, citing better tolerance to pollution and the country’s politics. “Single regimes have done a better job at identifying athletes early.”
That may be true, but he still has the US snatching up the most overall medals with a total of 103. They’ll earn 33 golds this time around, while Russia will grab 28 gold medals and 95 in total. Italian Olympic official Luciano Barra has a conflicting prediction. He said last week the US would earn 11 more gold medals than China, and 101 overall.
Johnson also did the math for the Turin, Athens, Sydney and Salt Lake City Olympic Games. In the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, the US snatched 25 medals—nine of them gold. The formula predicted eight gold wins. In 2004 in Athens, Johnson said the US would win 103 medals, 37 of them gold. That year, the Americans won 103 medals—36 gold.
The formula has had its share of misses. Before the 2004 games in Athens, Johnson and Ali predicted China would win 39 overall and 15 gold. But they took home 63 and 32, respectively. China’s tough to call because of its fast-growing economy, Johnson says.
A survey released by PricewaterhouseCoopers in June, which looked at population and average income levels, has China winning 88 total medals and the US taking 87 total medals home.
© 2008/THE NEW YORK TIMES