In the history of the Olympic Games, the numbers of participating countries have fallen only on only four occasions: the 1904 Olympic Games in the US when participation fell by more than half (the Russo-Japanese war and the difficulty of getting to St Louis deterred most athletes), the 1956 Melbourne Games when participation shrank only marginally (from 69 to 67 countries), and the 1976 and 1980 Games in Montreal and Moscow, respectively. Both the Montreal and Moscow Olympics suffered due to political boycotts: in Montreal, over apartheid, and in Moscow, over Russia’s involvement in Afghanistan. Apart from an increase in number of participating countries, there’s more to Olympics becoming more inclusive than just an increase in number of participating countries.
The pool of medals that can be won has increased, in tandem with the rise in the number of participating countries
The 1900 Paris Olympics comprised less than 100 events. More than 100 years later, at the London 2012 Olympics, the number of competitive events had risen to more than 300. At the Sydney Games in 2000, three new sports made their debut: triathlon, trampoline and taekwondo. The introduction of women’s events has also led to the rise in the pool of medals to be won. For instance, women’s boxing made its debut in London, and the prevailing 11 men’s events in boxing were replaced by 10 men’s events and three women’s events.
More and more countries are getting a shot at winning a medal
An increase in sporting events, accompanied by the introduction of new sports means that a greater number of countries have a shot at a medal. Danyel Reiche, Associate Professor of Comparative Politics at the American University in Beirut, Lebanon, has noted in his book, Success and Failure of Countries at the Olympic Games, that there are several other reasons behind the decrease in the dominance of the traditional medal winners from North America and Europe. One is the inclusion of sports like judo, table tennis and badminton where Asian countries are powerhouses. Rule changes in some sports like boxing and judo, which restrict each country to entering only one athlete, have also helped ensure that winners come from different countries.
However, there is still a lot of scope in terms of equality in the Olympics. In Success and Failure of Nations at the Olympics, Danyel Reiche has noted that 120 countries (58.3% of participating countries) did not win any medal at the London Olympics. He notes that as of 2016, the International Olympic Committee has 206 countries as members but only 136 of them have ever won a medal. The last time that a majority of participating countries won a medal was in 1960 when 52% of participating countries won a medal.
The number of female participants has increased overtime
Women made their debut at the 1900 Paris games where they comprised 2% of participating athletes. That number grew to 44% at the London Olympics, which also marked the first time that women participated in all sporting events. Since 1991, the IOC has ruled that women’s competitions must be included for any new sport seeking entry into the games.
Which countries fare the worst when it comes to women’s participation? At the London Olympics, the pressure of expulsion forced Saudi Arabia, Brunei and Qatar to include women in their Olympics contingent for the first time. Overall, in the Olympics, six of the nine countries with the lowest female representation (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Monaco, Iraq, Qatar, Botswana and British Virgin Islands) are Islamic countries, as noted by Danyel Reiche in his book, Success and Failure of Nations at the Olympics.
India’s contingent to Rio Olympics is the most gender balanced since 1988
India’s Olympic contingent has the highest share of women since the 1988 Olympics. In fact, India has been closing its gender gap in Olympics with its other emerging economies such as Brazil and Russia. China, on the other hand, has been sending more women than men to the Olympics in six out of the last eight games.
To be sure, composition of Olympic contingents is not entirely a policy decision, as it subject to players qualifying for the games as well. It is no surprise that countries with bigger contingents win more medals as well.
All this is fine, but what about India’s chances?
We are in the business of analyzing data, not predicting the Olympic medals tally. However, researchers at the Tuck School of Business , Dartmouth University, have developed an accurate form of medal prediction that was first unveiled at the Sydney Olympics. Their model is dependent on economic variables along with sporting talent, and proved 98% correct for the London Olympics. Four variables are used in making predictions: population, per capita income, past performance, and a host effect. India won six medals last time, and the model expects India to slightly improve its medal haul to seven at Rio. Here’s what they have to say about this year’s hopes.