With the Tokyo games just a sleep away, let’s dig a little deeper behind the games that unite 205 countries globally. While the underdog story always garners headlines, we’ve become used to China and the USA dominating medal tallies since the turn of the century. Is this simply a product of a massive population and a rich government? What factors determine the success of athletes outside their willingness to work hard?

Econometric research out of Birmingham concluded that population size and whether a nation is the host are the only significant predictor of success. Olympic success can be measured using a points system where gold, silver and bronze medals are worth a different number of points. 

A 10% increase in population increases a country’s share of medals by 0.06%. This number may seem small but if there were 1,000 points to give out, a 10% increase in population would deliver 6 more points. It makes sense, the bigger the talent pool, the greater chance of a freak athlete.

Whether GDP is significant is up for debate. It seems obvious, the richer countries can afford better facilities and training and most literature agrees with this but there are outliers. The research quoted finds there is a relationship between GDP and medals but it is insignificant.

Another interesting conclusion was that countries with higher GDPs succeeded in team sports while countries with lower GDPs disproportionately succeeded in individual sports. A poorer country can focus its resources on single athletes rather than investing in more expensive team sports.

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