GDP Olympics: Rio Edition

Every four years thousands of athletes from hundreds of nation meet to celebrate and contest the festival of sport known as the Olympic Games.  And every four years following the Olympics, patriotic pundits scrutinize the results, trying to prove which country is the best.

By the end of the 2016 games in Rio de Janiero, the United States had an impressive, record-breaking medal tally of 121 (including 46 gold medals) nearly doubling second place China (70 total medals) and Great Britain (67 total medals).  Russia’s 56 medals was also impressive given that most of its athletes were barred from competing due to widespread, systematic doping.

But the medal count doesn’t tell a complete story of which country performed the best in Rio. More populous countries have a distinct advantage. After all, more athletes should equal more medals. A nation’s economy also factors large in its ability to field a quality Olympic team. If people are just struggling to make the ends meets, it makes it very difficult to train for let’s say, synchronized diving.

Google accounted for both of these factors with its Alternative Olympics medal table. If you even out populations,  the Bahamas jumps to the top of the chart with an adjusted count of 100 medals beating out the U.S. (70) and Great Britain (50). Level the economic playing field and the top three are Fiji (with an adjusted count of 63), the U.S. (56), and Jamaica (32).

But what I like to do following every Olympics is to account for both population and GPD at the same time by adjusting the medal count for GPD per capita, all of a nation’s wealth divided by it population, which gives a rough estimate of the annual income of the average citizen. That helps answer the  question, which country is getting the most out of their resources, both human and financial?

Running the numbers in 2016 shows little change from the 2012 results. Ethiopia, North Korea, Kenya, China, Russia, Uzbekistan, Ukraine are all once again in the top 10, getting good medal results in spite of very poor economic opportunities for the average citizen.  Joining the top 10 in 2016 are Burundi, Azerbijan, and Niger. Burundi and Niger each make the list this time due to their terrible economies and the fact that they both won a single medal in Rio, something they failed to do in London. Azerbaijan earns most improved award, moving up the list from 20th place to crack the top 10 by increasing their medal haul from 10 to 18. Dropping out of the top 10 in 2016 are India, Cuba, and Jamaica. Jamaica just missed the cut by lowering its medal count from 12 to 11. Cuba also fell in the medal count from 14 to 11 while its GPD per capita improved somewhat. And India’s disappointing Rio medal count of two cost it 18 spots in the standings.

On the other side of the list are the countries that don’t get good medal results in spite of the average income of its residents.  Qatar, Singapore, Portugal, and Norway all make another appearance in the bottom 10. Norway’s four Olympic medals don’t offset its very high average income of $75,000 while Qatar, Singapore, Portugal should all expect to hear their countries’ anthems played more than once given their economic resources. Bahrain worked its way up out of the bottom 10 this year by doubling its medal count (from one to two). Saudi Arabia, Hong Kong, and Kuwait also disappeared from the bottom 10 medal winners, but they did it the wrong way. None of them factored in to this year’s calculations because they didn’t win a single medal in Rio.

Austria, Finland, United Arab Emirates, Puerto Rico, Ireland, and Trinidad and Tobago joined the repeat offenders in the bottom 10 of 2016. Finland because its medal count dropped from three to one, Puerto Rico dropped from two to one, Ireland dropped from five to one, and Trinidad and Tobago dropped from four to one. The high GPD per capital of both Austria and United Arab Emirates should justify more than the single medal they each won in Rio but they actually have reason to be proud they’re in the bottom 10 this time around. They’re actually improving. Neither country made 2012 list because neither country won a medal in London.

The United States came in 13th place in 2012 and is once again in 13th place in 2016. The medal count increased from 104 to 121, but that was offset by increased GPD per capita brought about by a recovering economy.



GDP Olympics: Sochi Edition

Following the Beijing Olympics I wrote a post on handicapping the medal count by a country’s GDP per capita.  The purpose for this was to give more credit to the countries that got the most medals out of limited resources (both people and money).  Ethiopia came out on top of that list by winning a lot of medals relative to its average citizen’s limited economic resources.  It’s high time I did the same for the Sochi Olympics.

You may recall the top five medal winning countries in Sochi were: Russia, the U.S., Norway, Canada, and the Netherlands.  Each country should be justifiably proud of its accomplishments, but how well should they have done?

Richard Florida already answered that question several different ways in his article, Did Russia Really Win the Sochi Medal Count?  Accounting for population (larger countries should win more medals) the top five become: Norway, Slovenia, Austria, Latvia, and Sweden.  All small, cold-climate countries specializing in Winter Olympic events.  The bottom five were the U.K., Japan, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and China.  Larger countries (and one huge one) not particularly good at winter sports.

And accounting for GDP (wealthier countries should win more medals), the top five are: Slovenia, Latvia, Belarus, Norway, and Austria.  Here there’s a strange mixture of poor economies with good medal showings, and great economies with outstanding medal results.  The bottom five were Australia, the U.S., the U.K., Japan, and China.  Economic powers who are much better at Summer Olympic events.

But one thing I like to do (which Florida didn’t) is combine those two variables using GDP per capita.  GPD per capita takes the all the money a country makes in a year (GDP) and divides it up by population (per capita) giving a rough estimate of the average salary.  The more money the average citizen makes, the more resources he or she has to train and pursue Olympic glory.  The lower the salary the more difficult (in theory) to one day stand on the podium.

The results: Russia is still #1.  With a haul of 33 medals and an average salary of only $14,200, Russians made the most of their limited resources.  Surprisingly China comes in second.  The Chinese team only came home with 9 medals, but an average salary of only $6,100 pushes them up the list (China was also #2 in the last Summer Olympics).  Belarus takes third place with numbers similar to China.  Then comes the U.S. and the Netherlands, with medal counts of 28 and 24 respectively and average salaries at or near $50,000.

The bottom five: Kazakhstan, the U.K., Croatia, Slovakia, and Australia.  Penalized for low medal counts (1 each for Kazakhstan, Croatia, and Slovakia) and high salaries ($50,000 for the U.K. and $70,000 for Australia) these countries didn’t get much from the Sochi games.*

Speaking of salaries, even with Norway’s impressive medal count, taking their incredibly high $106,000 GDP per capita number into account is enough to push them into the bottom 10, a position they held in the Summer Olympics too.  A small Nordic country with a booming economy ought to be able to win 26 Winter Olympic medals.

As always, countries wishing to improve their positions can do any or all of the following for Pyeongchang in 2018: win more medals, lower their GDPs, or increase their populations.

*To be fair, the many countries that competed but failed to win any medals at all are mercifully spared from these lists.

Economics in a Comic Book

EconomixI just finished an interesting economics book that’s more comic book than textbook.  “Economix: How Our Economy Works (And Doesn’t Work)” is written by Michael Goodwin and brilliantly illustrated by Dan Burr.  Goodwin does a great job tracing the history of the field of economics including the important contributions made by many different economists over the centuries, but the illustrations are the best part.  Burr’s caricatures and comic book style turns “the dismal science” into something light, funny, and enjoyable to read.

Economix would almost work as a textbook except for a few problems.  One, its focus on the historical leaves it little time to help readers deeply understand some fundamental concepts of economics.  It’s a better book to read for enjoyment after an introductory economics course.  And two, Goodwin has a hard time hiding his bias.  It’s funny when pokes fun of Calvin Coolidge, slightly annoying when he skewers Ronald Regan, and outright strange after page 199, where he states “…this book is about to get more controversial.  So be it.”  It does get controversial (or at least very one sided) and it becomes far less informative and fun to read.