What it takes for a country to do well at the Olympic Games

High per capita GDP and population, gender equality and focus on select sports help in hauling in the medals at the Olympic Games


A country needs significant economic resources to boost health outcomes, and invest in long-term training and infrastructure. Photo: Reuters
A country needs significant economic resources to boost health outcomes, and invest in long-term training and infrastructure. Photo: Reuters

A Plainfacts piece published last week showed how the Olympic Games have become more inclusive with time. India, however, has not been a significant beneficiary of the trend. What differentiates countries which do well at the biggest sporting event in the world from those who do not? We have tried to answer this question by looking at existing research on the question.

1. Population and wealth matters

Olympians are not produced overnight. A country needs significant economic resources to boost health outcomes, and invest in long-term training and infrastructure. But wealth alone cannot bring medals, as can be seen in the case of small but rich countries such as Luxembourg or Monaco. To produce athletes, a nation also needs a large population pool from which talent can be sourced.

Sports Reference lists 10 countries that have won the most medals at the summer Olympics (from the inaugural 1896 games in Athens to the London Olympics of 2012). These countries—the USA, the erstwhile Soviet Union, Germany, Great Britain, France, Italy, Sweden, Russia, China and erstwhile East Germany—are mostly wealthy nations that have seen sustained state investment in nurturing talent. In their influential paper , Who Wins the Olympic Games: Economic Resources and Medal Totals, Andrew B. Bernard from the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth and Meghan R. Busse from the Haas School of Business, UC Berkeley argue that top medal winning countries exhibit both high per capita incomes and a large population.

Also Read: How the Olympic Games have become more inclusive

2. Host effect

It’s been widely observed that host countries typically boost their medal haul. In Coming to Play or Coming to Win: Participation and Success at the Olympic Games, Daniel K. N. Johnson and A. Ali found that host nations on average win 24.87 more medals than non-host nations, and that neighbours of host nations do well too. They attribute this advantage to lower transportation costs and climatic advantages. They point out that large, wealthy nations (with high population and per capita GDP) are also more likely to be hosts, and thus gain a double advantage. Only 23 countries have ever hosted the Olympics: the US, which is also has the highest medal tally in Olympics history, has hosted the game the maximum number of times (eight). Bernard and Busse find that host countries win an additional 1.8% of medals, and attribute this to lowered costs of attendance, facilities, and the influence of spectators on judging (especially in sports such as figure skating and gymnastics where subjective judgement is involved). For instance, at the Sochi winter Olympics, champion skater Yuna Kim was defeated by Russian skater Adelina Sotnikova, a decision that was widely criticized as one where the judges were influenced by the cheering.

However, the theory of a host advantage has been recently debunked by Stephen Pettigrew and Danyel Reiche, from the Department of Government, Harvard University, and the Department of Political Studies and Public Administration, American University of Beirut, respectively. In Hosting the Olympic Games: An Overstated Advantage in Sports History, they find that host countries typically field much larger contingents as the qualification criteria is significantly relaxed for them. For instance, they note that in the summer games, on average, the host country’s team fields 162.2 more athletes than in the previous summer games. This results in larger medal haul. They justify their finding by pointing out that the change in the ratio of medals per athlete for host countries both before and after the Olympics events is not statistically significant.

3. Command economies do well

North Korea has won twice as many medals as India (since the beginning of participation at the Olympics, and until the London 2012 games). Cuba, Soviet Union and China have done well in Olympics. Xun Bian from the Illinois Wesleyan University wrote in Predicting Olympic Medal Counts: the Effects of Economic Development on Olympic Performance that countries at opposite ends of the spectrum on two counts, political freedom and civil liberties, tend to do the best in Olympics, with the relationship between medals and these two factors forming a U-shaped curve. Bian attributes this to the fact that international sporting success is important for totalitarian regimes to boost nationalistic sentiment. Moreover, he argues that a strong, central government is also better able to singlemindedly channel resources towards long-term investments like sports.

Also Read: Olympic Games: The conundrum of playing the host

4. Dominance in a few sports

Most countries win the bulk of their medals in a few sports. At the London Olympics, the US won close to 60% of its medals in athletics and swimming. Both also have the largest number of medals on offer. At the London Olympics, for instance, there were a total 47 athletics events for both men and women, with a total of 141 medals up for grabs. Thus, if India has to improve its medal haul, it makes sense to focus on excelling in a few sports. Incidentally, most Asian countries dominate indoor sports such as judo, table tennis and badminton.

A Goldman Sachs study , The Olympics and Economics 2016, constructed a dominance score for each sport and country based on historical data on medal wins. The value of the index ranges between 0% (if a country did not win a medal in that sport for the last five Olympic games) and 100% (for a country that won all medals in a sport). The results show that China leads medal wins in the sports that it dominates to a far greater extent than other top medal winning countries.

5. Gender equality matters

Jennifer Berdahl and Feng Bai from the University of British Columbia and Eric Luis Uhlmann at INSEAD, Singapore, found that increased gender equality has a positive effect on not only the performance of a country’s sportswomen, but also its men. In Win–win: Female and male athletes from more gender equal nations perform better in international sports competitions, this finding was found to be consistent even after controlling for potential third variables such as gross domestic product or GDP, population size, geographic latitude and income inequality. Educational equality best predicted medal outcomes for both men and women. The study also notes that the greater a country’s income inequality, the lower its medal haul. It is likely that both forms of inequality signify the extent of mobility and opportunity, factors that play a role in allowing talented youngsters to receive opportunities for advancement.

A comparison with a selection of developing countries that have performed better than India (for this comparison, we selected developing countries whose total medals per 10 million population at the London Olympics exceeded that of India. Islamic countries such as Algeria and Egypt were left out of this calculation as they have been dealt with in a separate chart below) shows that all these countries perform better than India when it comes to gender equality, particularly with respect to female labour force participation rate (LFPR) and educational attainment.

Another proof of importance of gender equality is the poor performance of Islamic countries, barring a few exceptions such as Iran and Turkey. The poor performance of Islamic countries (where majority population is Muslim or the state religion is Islam) that are oil rich is despite their high income levels.

Also Read: Will Rio Olympics bring a change in India’s hockey fortunes?

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