China/US Showdown for Olympic Medals this Summer Games?

image Chinese singer Wei Wei performs at a pre Olympics event in Beijing.

Home advantage, strong government support for sport and recent rapid economic growth could see China go head to head with the US at the top of the Beijing Olympic Games medals table in August, according to a new analysis by economists at PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Meantime, despite it being nearly two decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall, many former Eastern bloc countries are expected to win significantly more medals than would be predicted by the size of their economies. The benefits of these countries’ earlier “planned” approach to Olympic sport were still evident in their Sydney and Athens medal tallies and this is expected to continue in Beijing.

This is the third time that PricewaterhouseCoopers has published an analysis of how medal performance at the Olympic Games can be linked to such factors as past performance, economics and political planning.

In the extract below, the model estimates the top 10 medal-winning countries in Beijing compared to Athens 2004.

Country

Model estimate of medal total in Beijing 2008

Medal total in Athens 2004

Difference

1. China

88

63

+25

2. US

87

103

-16

3. Russia

79

92

-13

4. Germany

43

48

-5

5. Australia

41

49

-8

6. Japan

34

37

-3

7. France

30

33

-3

8. Italy

29

32

-3

9. Great Britain

28

30

-2

10. South Korea

27

30

-3

 

In producing the benchmark medals figures – which should be interpreted as targets rather than predictions – the following factors were found to be statistically significant:

  • Population
  • Average income levels (measured by GDP per capita at PPP exchange rates)
  • Whether the country was previously part of the former Eastern bloc (as well as Cuba and China, as examples of state planning in sport)
  • Whether the country is the host nation; and
  • Medal shares in the previous Olympic Games.

“In general, the number of medals won increases with the population and economic wealth of the country,” says the report’s author, PwC’s Head of Macroeconomics John Hawksworth. “David can sometimes defeat Goliath in the Olympic arena, although superpowers like the US, China and Russia continue to dominate the top of the medals table.”

 

Some of the more interesting conclusions to be drawn from the PwC model are:

  • As the host nation in Beijing and an economy which has grown very strongly since 2004, the medal ‘target’ of 88 for China according to our model is much higher than its actual medal totals in Athens (63) or Sydney (59); in fact, the model predicts that China may be very slightly ahead of the US (87), although this difference is well within the margin of error of the model so the race for top place is really too close to call based on this analysis.

  • Russia is projected by the model to continue to perform strongly relative to the size of its economy in third place (79 medals), well ahead of Germany (43) and Australia (41) in fourth and fifth places; based on past performance, however, there is a good chance that all three of these countries could out-perform their model medal targets given their strong Olympic traditions.

  • The two countries with by far the largest populations in the world are China and India, but their past Olympic performances could be not be more different: China won 63 medals in Athens while India won only one (the same as in Sydney); the model can explain some of this divergence, but still suggests that India is a significant underperformer, with a model target of 6 medals for Beijing. The most plausible explanation is that, with the exception of hockey, Indian sport tends to be focused on events that are not included in the Olympics, most importantly cricket; China, by contrast, is an example as noted above of the effectiveness of state planning in sport, comparable to the former Eastern bloc countries.

  • The model estimates suggest that European countries such as France, Italy and the Netherlands should be pleased if they can match their Athens medal totals, which were generally somewhat above the levels predicted based on the size of their economies and the lack of significant state support for sport in these countries.

  • For Great Britain, the model indicates a target for Beijing of 28 medals, the same as in Sydney, but down slightly from the ‘above par’ result of 30 medals in Athens.

  • Countries where the model targets for Beijng are identical, or nearly identical, to actual medal totals in Athens include Ukraine, Romania, Spain, Hungary, Canada, Bulgaria, Turkey and the Czech Republic.

  • Countries that the model suggests have the economic potential to do significantly better than in Athens include Poland, Brazil, Mexico and Indonesia; it will be interesting to see if they can improve their standings in Beijing.

Model estimates of Beijing 2008 Olympics medal totals as compared to Athens 2004 results

Country

Model estimate of medal total in Beijing 2008

Medal total in Athens 2004

Difference

1. China

88

63

+25

2. US

87

103

-16

3. Russia

79

92

-13

4. Germany

43

48

-5

5. Australia

41

49

-8

6. Japan

34

37

-3

7. France

30

33

-3

8. Italy

29

32

-3

9. Great Britain

28

30

-2

10. South Korea

27

30

-3

11. Cuba

24

27

-3

12. Ukraine

23

23

0

13. Netherlands

20

22

-2

14. Romania

19

19

0

15. Spain

19

19

0

16. Hungary

17

17

0

17. Belarus

15

15

0

18. Greece

15

16

-1

19. Poland

14

10

+4

20. Canada

13

12

+1

21. Bulgaria

13

12

+1

22. Brazil

12

9

+3

23. Turkey

11

10

+1

24. Thailand

10

8

+2

25. Czech Republic

9

8

+1

26. Kazakhstan

9

8

+1

27. Iran

8

6

+2

28. South Africa

8

6

+2

29. Indonesia

8

4

+4

30. Mexico

8

4

+4

Top 30 total medals

762

776

-12

Other countries

166

154

+12

Total medals

928

928

0

Source: PricewaterhouseCoopers model estimates

     

Mark Lee

About Mark Lee

Editor, author and writer with career spanning print, radio, television and new media.

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