Using Economics To Predict Olympic Medal Standings

Using a few simple factors, Dartmouth professor Andrew Bernard can guess, with a high degree of accuracy, how many medals countries will win at the Beijing Olympics. Bernard talks with Renee Montagne about his economic model for predicting the medal count.

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Here's a way to know which country is going to win the gold medals at Beijing's Olympics without even tuning in. There's an economic model that predicts with 96 percent accuracy who's going to win. It's created by Andrew Bernard. He's the director of the Center for International Business at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. And he's joined us to talk about it. Good morning.

Professor ANDREW BERNARD (Dartmouth College): Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Let's start with what you're predicting this year.

Prof. BERNARD: The big highlight is the U.S. will continue to win the most medals overall. And Russia's going to come in second. And China, I'm predicting, will come in third in the total medals. On the gold medal side, China is expected to just edge out the U.S. - 37 medals to 36 gold medals for the U.S., but that's really close enough to be called a tie.

MONTAGNE: Well, let's talk about this model. What is it exactly and how do you come up with these numbers?

Prof. BERNARD: Well, the way to think about it is athletes are a lot like complex machines, and you need materials to build them - that would be people. So countries with big populations tend to win a lot of medals. And you need resources to turn those raw materials into Olympic-level gold medal winning athletes, and that's income. And then the machines last for a while. So how well you did last time turns out to be pretty important. And then there's a final kind of toss-in effect, which is the host country effect. I have no idea what that actually is besides cheering crowds. And those four things are all I need to be able to predict country-level medals.

MONTAGNE: And how did you come up with this?

Prof. BERNARD: It started almost in reaction to the news after the Atlanta Olympics about the fact the U.S. didn't win enough medals. And I couldn't get my head around that. And I tried to figure out, well, how many medals are we supposed to win, because we can't win them all. And being an economist, I didn't have much to work with in terms of sports, but I started to think, OK, well, these are country-level events and countries do well at things because they're rich or because they've got population or education. And very quickly I started to get excited, because it was a very close fit to past performance starting in 1960.

MONTAGNE: And you've come up with a table. For instance, China - the number of medals that you're predicting has gone up pretty dramatically.

Prof. BERNARD: Yeah, and that's the host country effect and the fact that its economy's been growing quite rapidly. But that's mostly the host country effect. And so I'm predicting that China's going to move from 63 to 81 total medals. But the U.S. is still going to be on top with 105.

MONTAGNE: Does your model hint at any countries that are coming up in the standings this year?

Prof. BERNARD: Well, one of the interesting things is countries that do better than expected or worse than expected. And for instance, last time the Japanese were very happy that I under-predicted their performance, both in gold medals and total medals.

MONTAGNE: Now, I know you've called this model an unemotional benchmark. You've been 96 percent accurate. But I'm just wondering if the excitement may be also in the 4 percent where the model's off. That is that one extra medal that a country wins or the six extra medals that they win beyond the model.

Prof. BERNARD: You know, I really try not to watch the medal totals throughout the games, because I don't want to start rooting for countries to either hit my medal totals or exceed them. I prefer to watch them just like everyone else does and get sort of excited about the stories and the sports.

Overall, if you ask me, no, I want it to come in exactly right. But I'm nationalistic. I'd like the U.S. to beat China in the gold medal totals. I wouldn't be unhappy if that were the outcome.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

Prof. BERNARD: It's been my pleasure.

MONTAGNE: Andrew Bernard is the director of the Center for International Business at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth.

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