August 25, 2008

Forget China's 100 medals. The real winner of the Games was...

If you take into account national income - the best guide to Olympic success - the Dominican Republic outperformed us all

Wasn't it a great Olympics for Team GB, as I suppose we must call them? Fourth in the medals table - beating the Australians - is a fantastic achievement, isn't it?

No. There is another league table, published recently by the World Bank, which ranks countries by national income. And this bears a striking resemblance to the medals table. Nine of the top ten countries in the medals table are in the top 15 of the World Bank table; the exception is the Ukraine. Across all 87 countries to have won a medal, the correlation between the medals ranking and the GDP ranking is 0.41 - far higher than you would reasonably expect by accident.

In this respect, the Beijing Olympics were not unusual. In a recent paper Hon-Kwong Lui and Wing Suen, two Chinese economists, showed that population and national income per person were “major determinants” of medals won in Olympics between 1952 and 2004.

The reason for this is trivially simple. The more people a country has, the more chance it has of producing a medallist. And the richer it is, the more able it is to invest in talent-spotting or in training facilities, and the more chance it has of its sports becoming Olympic events; as Matthew Syed pointed out in these pages, sailing gets lots of medals but kabaddi doesn't.

Big economies should therefore get more medals than small ones. And they do.

This suggests a different way of judging Olympic success. We should compare a nation's position in the medals table to its position in the GDP table.

On this basis, Britain's performance was no better than respectable. Our fourth place in the medals table is just one place better than our position in the national income table. The notable fact about British Olympians is their underperformance in previous Games rather than huge outperformance in these.

By this measure, I'm sad to report, the Aussies did better than us. Their sixth position in the medals table is nine places better than their national income ranking. We can, though, take comfort in the fact that Germany - fifth in the medals table - underperformed relative to its economy.

So, who are the winners and losers by this standard? The winner is the Dominican Republic. Its one gold and one silver put it 47th in the medals table, while its puny economy is only the 179th in the world. Mongolia, Zimbabwe and Jamaica also did well.

The loser is Taiwan. It has the 17th biggest economy in the world, but came a mere 79th in the medals table.

There is a pattern here. The countries that punched above their economic weight in these games - which include North Korea, Cuba and Uzbekistan - are in many cases nations not renowned for their peace, political stability or respect for human rights; Jamaica is no place to be if you are a homosexual. Many of the losers have a better record.

This vindicates Harry Lime's theory. As he said in The Third Man, warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed gave us Michelangelo, da Vinci and the Renaissance while 500 years of democracy and peace in Switzerland (35th in the medals table and 22nd in the GDP table) produced only the cuckoo clock. (Even this was wrong; the cuckoo clock was invented in Germany.)

Excellence in the Olympics, then, is no sign of a wider flourishing of a nation. Gordon Brown might care to consider this before celebrating the British results.

There is an even stronger pattern. The 2008 medals ranking is similar to the 2004 ranking. The correlation between the two is a hefty 0.8. The ranking in the Athens games alone explains, in the statistical sense, three-fifths of the variation in the Beijing rankings. Of the countries to have “medalled” most - including team GB - moved fewer than ten places in the rankings between 2004 and 2008.

In other words, history matters. A nation with a culture of winning medals tends to continue doing so; nations with no such culture find it much harder.

There is a lesson here for anyone running any large organisation. Big groups - nations, firms, government departments - have history, traditions and culture that heavily influence their chances of success or failure. These cannot easily be overridden by the mere will of a leader.

You have probably got an objection to all this. When Chris Hoy sat on his bike on the starting line, he did not look at his rivals and think: “I come from a richer nation than most of those guys; this'll be a cinch.” Instead, he focused upon giving all he could.

And this is the point. From the point of view of the individual competitor, Olympic success is about skill, training and dedication - and, arguably, perhaps even natural talent. But from the point of view of the nation, success depends upon history and economics.

In other words, overall outcomes are not necessarily merely the result of individual motivations added together. Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please.

Chris Dillow is an economics writer at the Investors Chronicle and blogs at

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