The Gold Medal Chase

I have a wager with a friend on which country will win the most gold medals. It’s not very patriotic, but I have China, and he has the United States.

Dartmouth economist Andrew Bernard, who has built an econometric model to predict Olympic medals, thinks it’s a coin toss.

Bernard’s model couldn’t be much simpler: the main variables that go into the prediction are a country’s population, GDP per capita, how many medals they won in the last Olympics, and whether they are the host country. Historically the model has predicted well. (As an aside, if you ever need to predict anything and you are only allowed one variable, using what happened last time is probably the best variable you will ever find.)

When it comes to predictions, however, I put more faith in markets than I do in any individual economist. Just before the start of the opening ceremonies, Tradesports had China twice as likely as the United States to win the most gold medals. The volume was extremely low — only $1,000 in trades total — but still that gave me confidence.

I have to believe that when a country with as much at stake in these Olympics as China sets its mind on finding ways to beat the anti-doping rules, they will succeed.

So far, the results are consistent with my conjecture. China leads the U.S. 11-7 in gold medals and Tradesports now has China as 78 percent likely to win the most gold medals.


Josh in KM, China

I think that both China and the US have a chance at taking the most golds. However, be sure to notice that most of the China-favored events have come near the beginning of the Olympics. So was BOCOG or the IOC in charge of scheduling?

athelas

Shouldn't we really be rooting for medals per capita? In which case China would need 3x as many medals to be considered competitive with the US (and South Korea is just insane)

Malene, Denmark

Yes, how horribly unsportsmanlike it is that China "targets medal-dense events". It clearly makes their gold medal count much less valuable than that of the US, who earns their medals the hard way, through doping-free training and superior moral standards, and surely not in the cheap high-medal count events where, say, just one man has a realistic shot at getting 8 gold medals.

SJ

It's too early to say really. Athletics and gymnastics haven't started yet. I think the US has a edge there and where the US doesn't they are most likely to lose to African and East European countries not China.

Gary

So what happens if in the future, the results are changed at some point in the future by medals being revoked? This year we're keeping samples to be tested for 8 years into the future. Suppose something in Michael Phelps 10,000 calorie a day diet proves problematic? Perhaps several Chinese athletes had some tainted lo mein, explaining their unnatural strength?

With China and the USA running so close in total medals (albeit with China winning many more golds) the total medal count could be altered by just 1 or 2 juicing athletes getting caught.

Alex

I think it is highly reflective of your own morals to insinuate that if China wins, it is because it cheated, and if the USA or anyone else for that matter wins, it is due to merit. If you look back at history, the US has its fair share of drugs cheats too, starting at Olympic champion Marion Jones and the 4X400m relay team. Russia also has its sports cheats. Why single out China? In certain events like gymnastics, badminton, ping pong, the whole world can view the event and decide the winner objectively. Referring to the comment above that it is unfair to expect the US to win gold in ping pong and badminton, I will do no further justice to that comment except to say that it was fairly immature. Please, let us be mature and truly global citizens and delight in the sporting event, appreciate the trouble the hosts has gone to to host this sporting event, and sit back and enjoy the sports.

Nullvoid

Steven, your comment on doping is really ungrounded and unfair. I used to respect you a lot and promoted your book to my students. It is so disappointing for you to say this.

Nicole T

Where can I find the actual model and data sets?

science minded

a missed point. Why is China likely to win the most gold metals. I think that they have two things going for them 1)tradition and 2) society. Did you see the opening of the olympics? The circular like movements- that goes back around 4-5,000 years to their fighting approach of "rhythmic disciplined archery." And generally speaking, men do better when they play on teams.

So my guess is that America is likely to win when the women don't play on teams- but compete alone.

AB

It is a good bet. The Chinese have been preparing for these games since Beijing was announced as the host in 2001. They have pumped resources into their sports programs more than ever before. They know that this is their opportunity to show the world that they are a superpower.

As I watched the men's gymnastics team event last night, I was struck by a comment. An announcer reported that the Chinese coach said that he would "jump off of the tallest building in Beijing," if they didn't win gold. I don't think he was kidding.

How do you measure country pride?

kevin

Came here to agree with a lot of people and say that I'm tired of being told that if you win X medals then you are "the greatest olympic champion of all time." What about winning decathlon, heptathlon, pentathlon or triathlon - and heaven forbid in more than one Olympics? All require multiple disciplines and all have only 3 medals per sex.

Further, as has been mentioned, the team sports are so much more effort for just 1 gold medal at the end.

Anyway, the track and field events, which come later, will yield far more medals for USA next week.

adrienne

History would suggest that a host nation with flagging international perception would work hard to prove themselves as exemplary in the games:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1936_Summer_Olympics#Medal_count

Josh

A few other people have mentioned this, but...why is it that gold medals are the gold standard by which countries are judged at the Olympics? (Sorry for the pun.) Why not total medals? Or better yet, why not medaling athletes relative to eligible athletes? Or medals relative to the nation's investment in the games? Surely, if America invested 10 billion dollars to win 10 medals and Luxembourg (Togo? Laos? Papua New Guinea? Whatever...) invested 10 million dollars to win five medals, it would be clear who the "winner" was. I'm not arguing that the current 3-2-1 system is archaic or flawed in some way--the Olympics aren't like a professional sports season, where playoffs and a championship are on the line for nations--but judging overall success based solely on gold medals seems pretty dumb to me.

(Then again, if Steven Levitt advocates doing it, maybe I'll reconsider...)

Milt Blood

"China sets its mind on finding ways to beat the anti-doping rules"

So by this logic if the US wins the most medals, then the US has been better at finding ways to beat the anti-doping rules? I can think of other explanations for winning medals (e.g. intensity and excellence of training, focus in competition, etc.). It seems chauvinistic to think that the only way your opponent can win is to cheat, and it seems unnecessarily cynical to think that the only way anyone can win is to cheat.

georgeshen

RE: #29

Better yet, it should be medals based on GDP per capita. Now you know whom you really should be rooting for.

Endrit

Noah, #12, put it best? The value of medals is very subjective. The basketball tournament will produce only one gold medal, however it is probably the most followed event.

Jessica

Am I missing something? His model does predict China will win the most gold medals; 37 of 'em to only 36 for the US.

Jim N

total medal count seems very media oriented as #7 said, and certainly not the modern olympic ideal. smaller countries couldn't hope to complete on total medals let alone field a large enough group to compete in all events. the resource drain to field a competitive all events country group is even more considerable.

Technology, PED's, and resources will affect results unless they are equalized or removed.

I will still marvel at the determination, skill and trained excellence that athletes put on display to see who is the best in the short window of time called the Olympics. don't forget that there is some small bit of luck to be injury free and at peak performance during that window of time.

frankenduf

this is so unfair- how are we supposed to get gold in ping pong and badminton?

Mike

Seems like a case of nobody bothering to do their due diligence. Aren't the athletes' PERFORMANCES the most relevant variables?

Aren't there statistics and prior results sheets available for all the athletes with legitimate chances to win medals? I think you could look at each event and calculate reasonable odds of medals for either country. Then sum all this to determine the country's expected medals won. This is a much more direct method than Mr. Bernard's.