Issue #3: There’s No Place Like Home

  • We explored the medal count boost a country can expect in the year they host the Olympics
  • We stratified the host boost by men and women
  • The results were clear: host countries can expect a significant boost in the number of medals they receive when they host, and medal count returns to normal levels in subsequent Olympics.

Perhaps one of the most repeated tropes of the Olympic Games is the economic boost the host country receives through increased tourism during and after the games. However, increasing skepticism of this notion can be found in the pages of popular journalism. Many economists now agree that investing in the Olympics is not worth it. And all of the facilities built specifically for the games often become unused reminders of the huge expenditure a city and country undertook for a two-week extravaganza. Notably, it is widely believed that the expenditures on the 2004 Athens Summer Games contributed to the country’s debt, which sparked its current economic crisis.

Of course the economic boost is not what everyone is thinking about during the games… it’s the medals! Who cares whether or not the lights permanently go off at the newly glittering Olympic swimming pool building for this year’s games, Michael Phelps is swimming right now! And beyond the individual and team competitions, the world is treated to the global competition that is the total medal count.

One easily accessible dataset for any amateur statistician is the treasure trove of Olympics competition results going back to the first modern Olympics in 1896 Greece. Unfortunately this data does not typically include accurate host country expenditures for each competition, but the names, countries, events, and scores of each medal winner can tell us thousands of different stories.

In this issue of Elysia Engaged, we thought it would be fun to explore a different sort of “boost” for the host country: total medal count. How many extra medals can a host country hope to gain and hopefully justify, at least temporarily, the cost of being the host. Continue reading to find out!

The Star-Spangled Disclaimer

First, let’s get some caveats out of the way. (1) The Olympics considers a team medal to be one medal, i.e. the number of players on a team does not impact a countries total medal count. However, we think it’s reasonable to argue that the cost of room and board for an individual athlete is the same regardless of sport, and that perhaps some countries derive greater pride from team sports (e.g. the USA basketball team), so we decided to count all members of a medal-winning team as medal winners. (2) We opted not to make any data adjustments to account for the irregularities the games have seen over the years, including the missed war years of 1916, 1940, and 1944, and the (continuing!) phenomena of U.S.S.R./Russian participation woes. We think geopolitical forces play a big role in this story, and didn’t want to adjust them away. (3) We treated all medals (gold, silver, bronze) equally (4) Finally, we did not make adjustments based on individual countries’ Olympic infrastructure; we recognize the vast differences in GDP among host countries, and the advantage that living in a wealthy country conveys to athletes. So as you read, keep in mind this is a fun exercise based purely on the unadulterated data of the past 120 years.

Let the Games Begin!

First we looked at total medal counts over the years for each of the previous host countries going back to 1896. No big surprises for anyone who keeps track of the medal counts in the newspapers every four years, the U.S. and (despite occasional boycotts, etc.) U.S.S.R/Russia lead the way. We can probably assume Russia’s count would be much higher if they hadn’t missed the 1984 and 1992 Olympics.

Figure 1 Total Medal Count 1896-2012, Olympic Host Countries

Here is the same graph but divided by gender.

Figure 2 Total Medal Count 1896-2012, Olympic Host Countries, Females

Figure 3 Total Medal Count 1896-2012, Olympic Host Countries, Males

We see strikingly similar patterns in all three charts, although the gender balance differs somewhat.

Now we get to the topic of interest: what kind of medal “boost” can host country expect? Here’s a breakdown of each country who has ever hosted the games and the number of medals they won 12 years prior, during, and 12 years after hosting the games.

Figure 4 Medal Boost prior, during, and after hosting Olympics

Well, that answers that question! The amount of medals won by the host countries during the year they hosted is more than double that of years past. Unfortunately, this does not appear to translate into future success, since countries regress to approximately the same medal totals as the years prior to hosting. Similar to what we saw above, this pattern holds true when we compare men’s and women’s medal counts.

Figure 5 Medal Boost Prior, During, and After Hosting Olympics, Males

Figure 6 Medal Boost Prior, During, and After Hosting Olympics, Females

Now let’s look at the boost from the perspective of each individual country. Over a 24-year span, on average, host countries got 35% of their medals in the one Olympics they hosted out of seven in which they participated.

Figure 7 Medals Per Host Country and Percentage of Medals During Host Year

Again, we see a similar pattern when we compare men and women.

Figure 8 Medals Per Host Country and Percentage of Medals During Host Year, Males

Figure 9 Medals Per Host Country and Percentage of Medals During Host Year, Females

So clearly the boost is real. Is it simply national pride guiding athletes to go for the gold, or something else? We speculate that other contributing factors could include additional athletic investments by host countries so as not to be embarrassed on their home turf, a greater number of athletes participating in the games who are free from the burdens and expense of international travel, and better acclimation to the climate, among others.

OK, so what does this mean for this year’s Olympics in Rio? Setting aside all of the real problems that threaten the integrity of these games (Brazil’s socioeconomic issues, Zika, Russian doping [seriously, what’s the deal with Russia?!]), let’s make a guess as to how many medals each of the previous host countries can hope for this year. Based on all prior years going back to 1896, here is our Don’t-Put-Any-Real-Money-Down-On-This prediction:

Figure 10 Predicted Medal Counts, All Host Countries

And given that Brazil is hosting this year, let’s make a bold prediction based on previous hosts that their total this year is not 38 based on historical data, but their Olympic boost will net them a whopping 109 medals this year. You heard it here first! Let the games begin!