Forecast and actual medals won by top 15 medal winners at Beijing Olympics 2008 (from Forrest et al)

Olympic watchers who aren’t happy with their country’s absolute medal count can always get solace from one of the many places offering alternative medal tables, like The Guardian’s Datablog.

It shows that at the end of day 12 New Zealand, for example, was lying in third place on the population-adjusted medals ladder. That’s much better than its official position (sixteenth) and, perhaps equally important from a Kiwi perspective, it’s better than Australia was doing at that stage!

But whatever consolation population-adjusted rankings might offer, population size has precious little to do with winning Olympic medals. Sure, the most populous nation on earth is currently leading the medal count in London, but the second most populous country is only ranked forty-sixth.

In a model they constructed to predict the share of medals won by countries at the Beijing Olympics, academics David Forrest, Ismael Sanz and J.D. Tena found that when GDP was included, population size had little direct role in explaining the relative performance of countries. What seems to matter far more are factors like national wealth and a country’s preparedness to direct resources to fostering elite sport.

Their model was built on six variables (since they’re closely related, they call them co-variates). For each country, they measured GDP; the number of medals won at the preceding Olympics; government spending on sport and recreation; and whether or not the country is the Olympics host; is due to host the next Games; was a member of the former Soviet bloc; or is a planned economy.

They calibrated the model using the medal results for 127 countries (those for which data was available) at each Olympic games from 1992 to 2004. They then forecast the total medals each would win at the 2008 Games and subsequently compared the prediction against the actual results from Beijing.

It’s evident the forecasts understated China’s, Australia’s and the US’s medal tally somewhat and overstated Japan’s (see exhibit). However the authors say the R2 between the forecast and actual medals was 0.970.

Moreover, 99 countries were within two medals of the forecast. That’s not surprising given most were in a long tail, but the model was successful in predicting thirteen of the countries that filled the fifteen leading positions and in broad terms it got the rank order of those 15 right.

So the ability and preparedness of countries to channel resources into elite sport seems to be the key determinant of Games success. Great Britain is a classic example. It won only 28 medals at the Sydney Games and 30 at Athens, in both cases well behind Australia’s total (58 and 49). However following London’s selection for the 2012 Games, GB’s tally jumped sharply to 47 at Beijing, one more than Australia, and it’s won 48 so far (end Day 12) at London.

According to Tyler Cowen and Kevin Grier, there are nevertheless other ways countries can increase their chances of winning more medals.

One strategy is to focus available funds on those sports which offer lots of medals. Team sports like hockey, soccer and basketball are expensive because many players have to be funded, but typically only offer a single medal.

In contrast, sports like swimming, athletics, shooting, judo and cycling offer many medals and only require one or a handful of competitors per medal event. In some sports, a single competitor can enter multiple events and reasonably expect to do well. Michael Phelps, for example, swam in seven events in London (winning five medals) and Ryan Lochte swam in six (winning five medals).

Another strategy is to focus on sports in which the country has a comparative advantage. Cowen and Grier cite the fit between beach volleyball and the “outdoorsy” lifestyle of California, Brazil and Australia. Perhaps a better example is the fit between Australia’s high incomes and sports that are expensive for participants, like equestrian and sailing.

Kenya has a comparative advantage in distance running. Jamaica excels in sprinting, but rather than being the result of a “natural” endowment, it appears to be a specialisation it’s created. Cowen and Grier also suggest countries keen to increase their medal count can apply available funding to “importing” talent from other countries.

Steve Sailer says rich countries have sought to increase the number of women’s events because it’s the “easy way” to win more medals.

If the Olympics still had the same distribution of events as in, say, 1952, poor countries would win a larger percentage of medals. Training women for some obscure macho sport is a luxury that only rich countries and dictatorships can do.

There’s little doubt many advanced countries, including Australia, already implement some or all of these principles (I ignore illegal methods). They do it because success at the Olympics really matters to lots of people in lots of countries. It doesn’t matter for instrumental reasons – it matters because it makes those citizens feel good.

If the citizens of Australia knew the real cost of medals they might possibly think twice about the level of public funding provided for Olympic sport, but I very much doubt it. Shaun Carney says the Australian Institute of Sport was established to buy Olympic gold medals and gets it right, I think, when he says,

there is not a shadow of a doubt that this had the support of a big majority of Australians. We like watching men and women in the Australian strip winning. It makes the rest of us feel like winners. In fact, the rest of us claim the victories as our own. ”We” won 16 gold medals in Sydney in 2000. ”We” took 17 gold at Athens in 2004.

Personally, I wish Australians were as passionate and proud about our fellow citizens achievements in fields like managing the environment, social justice, establishing new businesses and technological innovation, as we are about their sporting successes. Imagine if we saw addressing disability and fostering creativity (say) as grand national projects on a par with success at the Olympics.

It’s tempting to think that as we become more confident as a nation of our place and status in the world, we’ll be less inclined to focus on sport. But I think that’s unlikely. Countries with longer histories than ours, like the US and Great Britain, show little sign of pulling back on Olympics expenditure. Indeed, our Olympic officials (here and here) reckon a key reason why Australian athletes have won fewer medals at these games is because other nations have upped the expenditure ante.

P.S. Some researchers at Ruhr-Universität Bochum have made medal predictions for the London Games. Unfortunately I couldn’t find full details of their methods. They predict Australia will win 43 medals in 2012 and rank fifth in the total number of medals won (at the end of day 12 Australia had 26 medals).