Olympic history is on Great Britain’s side, but how about predictive modelling?
The past says host nations tend to exceed expectations in terms of Olympic medal counts. A quadrennial report by PwC says Great Britain will claim its highest number of medals in more than 100 years at the 30th Summer Games, which begin this week.
The usual medal suspects—the US, China and Russia—remain atop the list, which PwC frames not as a prediction but as a performance benchmark. It has published the “Modelling Olympic Performance” list since the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.
The US is projected to win 113 medals, three more than in the previous Summer Games. China is next at 87, 13 fewer than in 2008. Russia is third at 68, and Great Britain is next at 54.
The 2008 Great Britain team surpassed by far the benchmark of 28 medals (ninth best) by finishing with 47 medals (fourth best). No Great Britain teams have finished in the top four of the medals table in consecutive Olympics since 1920 (Antwerp, Belgium) and 1924 (Paris).
The PwC paper takes into account a country’s population and GDP as well as funding of sports programmes. It also examines the home-country effect, which China demonstrated in 2008 could be a big factor in medal haul. The Chinese team won 100 medals in Beijing four years ago, second overall to the US, but China had the most gold medals with 51.
The US won 110 medals in 2008, including 36 gold (eight of those from swimming events in which Michael Phelps participated).
Some publications take medal projections even further, selecting the top three athletes or teams for each event. The Wall Street Journal’s projections have the same order as PwC at the top: US 108, China 92, Russia 83 and Great Britain 66.
The PwC paper addresses history as a predicting factor, especially for former communist countries in Eastern Europe. Romania, for example, placed a strong emphasis on sports—gymnastics in particular—and regularly performs well above where population and other numbers say it should.
“We find clear statistical evidence that the former Soviet bloc countries significantly outperformed expectations based on their relatively low GDP levels,” the report says.
In fact, the medal benchmark—and actual medal count—tend to mirror global GDP rankings.
“The model estimates suggest that the top 30 countries might be expected to win around 80% of all the medals awarded in London, which would actually be slightly below the 82%-83% shares of the top 30 countries in Beijing (2008), Athens (2004) and Sydney (2000),” the report says. “This also broadly mirrors the shape of the global economy, in which the top 30 countries account for just over 80% of world GDP.”
Still, even the most precise models mean nothing once the competition begins. Even John Hawksworth, the paper’s author and PwC UK’s chief economist, knows this. “They can never take full account of the human factor of exceptional individual performances,” he wrote. “So we will be only too pleased if the British team can beat our model projection in London this summer!”
—Neil Amato (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a CGMA Magazine senior editor.