Numbers Game

Why big, rich, and communist is the way to Olympic glory.

The Olympic motto, "Citius, Altius, Fortius" (faster, higher, stronger) might be good inspiration for an athlete training for the games, but for a nation looking for Olympic glory, a more useful dictum might be "maior, ditiores, communistarum" -- bigger, richer, communist. While upsets are always possible in any individual event, the factors that make a nation an Olympic powerhouse are pretty clear, and it's surprisingly easy to predict which countries will come out on top.

Shortly before the 2000 Sydney Olympics, two economics papers appeared within days of each other looking at the determinants of gold medal success. Remarkably, both came to virtually the same conclusion about what makes a nation an Olympic champion. Ever since then, the lead authors of each paper, Andrew Bernard of Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business and Daniel Johnson of Colorado College, have been using these factors to make predictions before each Olympics, sometimes with uncanny accuracy.

"When we compared [the final medal count] with the expected result in 2000 we thought we had made a horrendous error. It was like a .96 correlation. You don't get that sort of result in an economic model," says Johnson. But Johnson soon realized this shouldn't actually be that surprising at all, as overall Olympic success is remarkably predictable. By far, the most important factors are population size and gross domestic product (GDP) per capita.

The models don't look at individual athletes or sports, but national team performance as a whole. "Olympic athletes are like complex machines. The more people there are, the more machines there are. The more resources-per-person each country has, the more these machines can be invested in and turned into Olympic athletes," says Emily Williams, a recent MBA graduate from Tuck and Ph.D. candidate at London Business School who has taken over the work on Bernard's model for predicting the London games. GDP, in particular, is a large part of why the United States holds a nearly insurmountable lead in the all-time count with 2,296 medals --  whereas Russia/Soviet Union comes in a distant second at 1,327. (Russia's historical performance is perhaps more impressive given its much lower GDP and population figures and it also holds a clue as to what can make a nation punch above its weight.)

This may seem intuitive enough, but there are a couple of other ways a country can gain a leg up. One is to actually host the games. This might be partly due to home-field advantage -- less travel, familiarity with the facilities -- and partly because the host country tends to field more athletes, but it's also because countries tend to invest more in sports generally when they host the games. Whether or not countries actually make money on the Olympics, hosting can be a powerful signaling mechanism for a country looking to prove its place in the global economy. And that signal ideally includes fielding competitive athletes in addition to building shiny new stadiums. Greece, for instance, took home 16 medals in 2004, when it hosted the Athens games, but only four in Beijing.

One other factor that both papers found helps countries rake in the medals is a bit more surprising: communism. Throughout the Cold War, when medal counts became a matter of not just national but ideological pride, communist governments like the Soviet Union and East Germany were able to much more efficiently allocate government resources to build sporting powerhouses and consistently outperformed predictions made on size and GDP alone. This wasn't just true for the Eastern Bloc. Cuba, for instance has won more than twice as many summer Olympic medals as Brazil, despite having only a fraction of its wealth and population.

Given these factors -- size, wealth, host, communist (or at least single-party) -- China's impressive performance at the 2008 games (100 medals, 51 of which were gold) was hardly surprising. "You would almost expect them to run the table," says Johnson. But China actually outperformed the models. Johnson's model predicted 79 medals for China in 2008, while Bernard's gave it 81. According to Johnson, China has been "historically the most difficult country to predict."

The only other country in China's heavyweight population division -- India -- has historically been one of the Olympics' great underperformers, with only 20 summer medals all-time. That's tied with Slovakia, which has only been a country since 1993 and has .4 percent of India's population. The world's largest democracy has never really made sports spending a priority. Plus, several of the sports that Indians do excel at internationally like cricket and squash aren't Olympic events. Johnson's model predicts 7 medals for India in the 2012, though it won only three in Beijing.

The country that most consistently outperforms expectations is Australia, which has the most medals per capita over the last three games. Yes, Australia is traditionally a sporting culture and the fact that 85 percent of the country lives within 30 miles of the ocean may contribute to their historic dominance in swimming. But it also shouldn't be surprising to learn that after a disappointing zero gold medal performance in 1976, the Australian government embarked on a massive centralized training program to spur Olympic glory -- modeled on the youth sports academies of the Eastern Bloc. Ahead of the 2000 Sydney games, the country spent $20 million on scientific research aimed at improving its athletes' performance. Australia might be a democracy, but since the 1980s, it's taken a near-Soviet approach to preparing for the Olympics -- and it's been among the top 10 medal count nations since 1992, including an impressive 58-medal performance in Sydney.

So what do the numbers predict for London? Johnson's prediction has the United States in first place with 99 medals. Russia, which underperformed its prediction by 11 medals last time, will still be second with 82. China will come in third with 67 medals, though it will win more golds than Russia (but 67 medals would likely be a major disappointment after the Beijing haul). And homefield advantage will boost Britain into fourth place with 45. This year, Johnson is de-emphasizing the communist metric of the equation because the sample size is so small in the post-Cold War world; so it may be interesting to watch what that means for countries like Cuba and Vietnam.

Williams, using Bernard's formula, which has historically been more accurate (because it includes by far the best indicator for medal count: who won last year), has the same top four but in a different order. She gives the United States 103 medals, followed by China with 94, and Russia with 67. Her projections are more optimistic for her home country, Britain -- which is predicted to bag 62 medals, its highest count since the London games of 1908, when it won nearly half the medals awarded.

There's also a new kid on the block in the medals prediction game. Using an expanded series of metrics that includes "political conditions, macroeconomic stability, macroeconomic conditions, human capital, technology and the microeconomic environment," economists at Goldman Sachs have produced their own predicted medal table giving the U.S. 108 medals, 98 for China, 74 for Russia, and 65 for Britain.

Accurate as these models are, it's the deviations from the mean that make the Olympics fun. Watching Michael Phelps trounce the rest of the world in the pool might be fun for a while, but without the possibility of an upset, who would watch? Williams predicts that the most interesting story in the next few Olympics may not be China, but smaller developing countries that are slowly increasing their share of the medal count.

"I'm glad the model's not always accurate," Johnson says. "Otherwise we could just mail out the medals in advance."

Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images


Two Steps Forward…

Do Saudi Arabia's two Olympic female athletes -- the kingdom's first ever -- represent changing times in the Land of the Two Holy Mosques, or will the conservative religious backlash win out?

For years, human rights organizations hoping to use the Olympics as leverage to challenge Saudi Arabia's restrictive gender policies have looked to the case of apartheid South Africa. The International Olympic Committee (IOC), after all, expelled South Africa in 1970 for its policy of racial discrimination -- a ban that stayed in place for 21 years, until the fall of apartheid in 1991. If the IOC took action against South Africa to help end race-based apartheid there, shouldn't it bar Saudi Arabia from the 2012 London Olympics in protest of gender-based apartheid in the kingdom?

The Saudi government moved to pre-empt such consequences this month by announcing that it would allow two female Saudi athletes to compete for the first time ever in the Olympics. The two Olympians are Sarah Attar, a dual Saudi-U.S. citizen who will compete in the 800-meter race, and Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani, who will compete in judo. The IOC invited the women to the Olympics under a clause that allows athletes to compete "when their participation is deemed important for reasons of equality," even if they do not meet minimum qualifying standards. But human rights organizations looking to use this small concession to sweep away Saudi Arabia's restrictions on women will find that their battle is just as long, and no less difficult, than the struggle against apartheid.

It's not just the Olympics -- Saudi Arabia is hostile to women's participation in athletics at all levels. The ministry that regulates all competitive sports, including the 153 official sports clubs, does not recognize any female teams. Women aren't even allowed inside these clubs or be spectators at stadiums. Female physical education is not permitted in public schools, so the only way a Saudi woman can practice any type of competitive sport is through expensive private schools or colleges, and health clubs. But these organizations are prohibited from publicizing their rare activities, and women's teams of any sort are discouraged from publicly stating their affiliation with any institution.

The only exception is the groundbreaking work by Lina Almaeena, who launched the first public women's basketball team in 2003 and subsequently co-founded the first women's sports organization, Jeddah United, in 2006. The organization grew from a six-woman team to include the involvement of more than 300 men and women from across the kingdom. With the assistance of volunteers from the expatriate community, it has managed to grow, despite long odds.

But Jeddah United's success has come at a price. Every time its activities receive media attention, the organization is met with a barrage of insults from conservative Saudis, who accuse it of corrupting the girls' morals. "The key is to have publicity later," Almaeena told an NBC reporter in 2008 when asked how the organization managed to stay in business. "It's also a matter of luck, but you're more likely to get lucky in Jeddah [a less conservative city than many in the kingdom] compared to other places."

These public firestorms are the reason that female students participating in athletics at private schools and universities are discouraged from publicly discussing their activities. The last major controversy occurred in late 2010, when six private Saudi schools arranged a girls' sports tournament; competitions included basketball, badminton, swimming, and athletics. Ultra-conservative groups got wind of the event, and they swiftly complained to the Education Ministry. The schools' principals were inundated with calls from religious clerics and Saudi officials voicing their disapproval. Soon after, the Education Ministry issued a ruling that competitive programs at girls' schools were prohibited, and the schools were forced to abandon the tournament.

Saudi conservatives have spilled a great deal of ink to justify the restrictions on female athletics. Sheikh Abdulrahman Al Shathri, an Islamic cleric and public notary, is the author of one such effort -- Girls' Sports and Scouting in Schools and Universities, a book published in 2010 and currently in its third edition. The book lays out all the reasons why physical education is bad for girls -- for example, Al Shathri warns that athletics "orient women toward a masculine physique, as their pelvis shrinks into the size of a male pelvis and their shoulders broaden."

Al Shathri leans heavily on past religious decrees to make his case against women in sports. His book includes the full texts of 24 fatwas by Saudi sheikhs prohibiting physical education and sports clubs for women, four of which were issued by the head of the Higher Islamic Council, the kingdom's highest religious authority. For good measure, Al Shathri also threw in two fatwas by Yemeni sheikhs that take the same position.

He's kind enough, though, to suggest some other options for women: His book advocates household chores such as vacuuming as an alternative to physical education. He backs up his stance with several international medical studies that show how keeping house also burns calories.

A recurring theme in Sheikh Al Shathri's writing and the collected fatwas is that physical activity for women is not Islamically prohibited per se, but that it leads to issues that are. According to the book, athletics will corrupt Saudi women by leading to lesbianism, disruption of the menstrual cycle, hymen tearing, loss of femininity, and Westernization -- as the participation of Saudi women in international competitions will require them to appear uncovered in front of men.

Though Saudi officials have said that the two female Olympians will be required to dress in such a way that "preserve[s] their dignity," the women's inclusion has provoked a predictable backlash from the kingdom's ultra-conservative religious establishment. Many expressed their outrage at the decision on social media sites: Sheikh Mohamad Alarefe, who boasts over 2 million Twitter followers, chastised Youth and Sports Minister Prince Nawaf for the decision, asking him if he would be so supportive if Attar or Shahrkhani were one of his sisters.

Although the two women are set to compete in the London Olympics, Saudi Arabia has so far kept the news hushed up at home. Except for a short interview with Attar and footage of her running wearing a hijab and long-sleeved tracksuit (her family requested that photos of her wearing more revealing clothing be removed from her biography on the website of Pepperdine University, where she is a junior), no other information has been released. News about Shahrkhani is scarce, and no photos of her have been published.

There's no getting around the fact that Saudi Arabia is allowing these two women to compete only to avoid being barred entirely from the Olympics, while simultaneously trying to erase any suggestion within the kingdom that this represents a breakthrough in gender equality. So far, after all, there is no indication that the government has budged in its restrictive policies toward women's participation in sports at the local level.

Although the Saudi government has its own motivations for the inclusion of Attar and Shahrkhani, the decision is still a step in the right direction. It could have reverberations that not even the religious establishment can control, showing a generation of Saudi women that athletics are not an exclusively male domain. And who knows? Years from now, perhaps, a female Saudi athlete -- standing on the podium to receive her gold medal -- will spare a thought for these two Olympian trailblazers.