This morning I wasted my time in the office crunching some numbers in Excel. The futility of me quantifying Olympic success against socio-economic indicators is underlined by the existence of so many similar analyses already, i.e. this Olympic Medal Count by Population and GDP.

However, I wanted to see how success (measured by all medals, not just gold) could be weighed against adult population and their purchasing power parity (PPP) – often cited as a more accurate descriptor of countries’ relative wealth than the more standard GDP per capita.

Hence this post, timed two weeks before the London 2012 opening ceremony. I’m not going to go into the ins and outs of the data analysis. All you need to know is that it would in no way stand up to the rigours of an independent audit, not least as I’m comparing data from different years (medals from 2008; population and PPP data from various latest figures).

Firstly, Graph 1 shows the top ten medal winning countries from Beijing 2008, ranked (conventionally) in order of total medals:

Graph 1: Top ten medal rankings from the 2008 Beijing Olympics

Secondly, Graph 2 shows the top ten ‘medalling’ countries from Beijing divided by the total adult population in each country. The numbers beside each country are the overall ranking across all medalling countries. The top three (not shown in the graph) are: Jamaica (one medal per 134,364 adults), Iceland (194,000) and New Zealand (297,556). India came 78th and last with one medal per 190,198,333 adults. A bit too much cricket, perhaps.

Graph 2: Top ten medal winning countries from the 2008 Beijing Olympics, in order of adults per medal

Graph 3 shows quite clearly how big populations can equate with Olympic success. Sorry, India.

Graph 3: Adult populations of the top ten medal winning countries from the 2008 Beijing Olympics

Graph 4 shows the number of medals per adult purchasing power parity (PPP), in US dollars. Though China was bottom of Graph 2, here they’ve shot to the top and are ranked no. 1 overall. So, while China underperforms relative to the size of population, they make up for it in their ability to translate wealth into Olympic success. We can summise that if they can distribute their resources across the whole country they will be an unstoppable force.

Graph 4: Top ten medal winning countries from the 2008 Beijing Olympics, in order of PPP per medal

It’s often suggested that wealth (and population) are key determinants of Olympic success. Just glancing at the top ten countries list seems to support this, with nine of the G20 represented (Ukraine being the gatecrasher). However, Graph 5 plots these ten countries’ PPP in order of their placings in the top ten medals table, and no clear correlation is found from this (imperfect) sample:

Graph 5: PPP in order of overall medal rankings from the 2008 Beijing Olympics

As already demonstrated in Graph 4, China, Russia and Ukraine punch far above their weight (as measured in PPP).

Right, back to work.


2 thoughts on “Olympinomics

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