Why the economic model predicting Olympic medal counts drastically underestimated the U.S. haul.

Commentary about business and finance.
March 2 2010 3:40 PM

America's Joy, Austria's Sorrow

Why the economic model predicting Olympic medal counts drastically underestimated the U.S. haul.

Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

At the outset of the Olympics, I checked in with Colorado College economist Daniel Johnson, the Canadian-born curling enthusiast who has developed a model that generates pretty accurate predictions about countries' medal performance. The model, you'll recall, is simple. The economist studies only five variables: population, income per capita, climate, political structure, and host-nation advantage. Johnson's predictions for 2010, which include only those nations expected to win 10 medals or more, can be seen here (PDF). Now that the Olympics have ended, Johnson and I conducted a postmortem to see which sporting nations outperformed and which disappointed. Here's the full 2010 medal count table.

Conclusion: The United States was the Shaun White of medals, exceeding even very high expectations. Canada did about as expected, and Russia pulled the equivalent of skiing off the slalom course after the first gate. Germany was also a medaling champion. The model projected Germany's medal haul would fall from 29 in 2006 to 20 in 2010. And yet Germany came in second with 30 medals—50 percent more than projected.

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Canada, which typically does well in the Winter Olympics, was expected to ride the host-nation status to a world-leading 27-medal haul, though only five were expected to be gold. Johnson notes that the home-snow advantage generally adds about three medals to the total a host nation would be expected to win. In fact, though Canada won 26 medals, 14 of them were gold. "They covered their home advantage," said Johnson. "They did exactly as expected."

The model projected that the United States would tie for second with 26 medals. But Americans took home a whopping 37. "Not only did they win the most of any nation ever, but they outperformed the model by the biggest margin ever," Johnson said. (At this point in the interview I interrupted Johnson's discourse with aggressive chants of "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!") Was it possible that the United States had something of a home-snow advantage? After all, Vancouver is just over the border, American athletes traveling to Vancouver didn't have to make much of an adjustment to time or cultural differences, and there were large numbers of American supporters at several events. "Many of the U.S. athletes in Vancouver were closer to their homes than Canadian athletes who live in the eastern part of Canada," Johnson notes.

Other surprises: Austria, expected to win 25 medals, won just 16, in large measure because its ski team schussed like sheiss. The Nordic countries (Finland, Sweden, and Norway) were expected to increase their medal haul substantially from 2006, with Finland expected to win 14. But instead, while Norway won 23 of its projected 26 medals, Sweden and Finland both disappointed. Finland won just five medals, and no golds. And Russia, which was projected to win 23 medals, the same as in 2006, performed disastrously, winning just 15, including a measly three golds.

As always, individual performances and hair-thin margins played a role. Take out the great performances of Apolo Anton Ohno, Lindsey Vonn, and Julia Mancuso, and the U.S. performance wouldn't be as impressive. I've got a couple of other theories for some of the variation from the model. Russia's athletic performance is in relative decline because the whole country is in relative decline. In the post-Soviet era, Russia's health, life expectancy, and population have declined. In the past two decades, many of its most ambitious citizens, including world-class athletes and their families, have emigrated. "Emigration probably has some impact," said Johnson. "For any nation where quality of life is diminishing, people with world-class opportunities leave." In Beijing, for example, gymnast Nastia Liukin, a Moscow native, won medals for the United States, not Russia. Italy, another country in economic and demographic decline, similar fell on its face in Vancouver. The model, which perhaps gave too much weight to Italy's impressive 2006 Turin performance, projected the Italians would win 19 medals. They took home only five.

As it was for the Austrian skiers, the Vancouver Olympics were a little chastening for Prof. Johnson and his model. Over the past few Olympics, the model has a 94 percent correlation with the actual medal count per country and about an 88 percent correlation with the actual gold medal haul per country. But this year, not so much. "The predictions were less accurate this year than in any previous Olympics for which we've run numbers," Johnson said. "That suggests to me that something changed and these games were unusual."

The big difference was that the giant traditional powerhouses Germany and the United States won so many more medals than expected—at the expense of smaller Scandinavian and central European nations. And this may simply be a case of the rich getting richer. "There is a general sense that Germany and the United States provided athletes with a lot of financial support," Johnson said. Observers of the U.S. economy will identify in these Olympics a familiar phenomenon: an increasing concentration of asset-based wealth (in this case: gold, silver, and bronze) among those with the most money. And they're willing to spend cash to protect their elite status.

See you in Sochi.

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Daniel Gross is the Moneybox columnist for Slate and the business columnist for Newsweek. You can e-mail him at moneybox@slate.com and follow him on Twitter. His latest book, Dumb Money: How Our Greatest Financial Minds Bankrupted the Nation, has just been published in paperback.

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