China Likely to Win More Medals Than in Years Past
The medals assigned to the new members of the IOC.
Credit: © IOC/R. Juilliart

China's hopes for a huge haul of Olympic medals this year look like they may be fulfilled.

A study earlier this year found that a country's population and income can predict how many Olympic medals it will win, and calculated that China can expect to take home 14 percent more prizes this year than it did in the last summer games in 2004. Though the researchers forecast a big jump for China, they do not predict it will be enough to overtake the United States, which has won the most medals in recent years.

"The gap between China and the United States will narrow," said researcher Lui Hon-Kwong, an economist at Lingnan University in Hong Kong. "Of course the U.S. will still be the first, but be careful. A few more games and the U.S. is unlikely to be first. China is coming up strong. Its income and population are increasing at a very fast pace."

Size and wealth

Lui and Wing Suen of the University of Hong Kong collected data from the 1952 to 2004 summer Olympic Games and designed a statistical model to calculate how strongly various factors, such as a country's wealth, population size, life expectancy and average level of education, affect how many medals the country wins at the Olympics. The researchers found that a nation's size and per capita income strongly correlate with its medal tally, but that the other factors they tested have an insignificant effect.

Lui said that population plays a role because if one assumes that exceptional athletes are randomly distributed throughout the world, then the more people that live in a country, the greater that nation's chances of having some of the best athletes on its team.

Wealth affects Olympic performance because the higher a country's per-capita income, the more people in that country can afford sports training, equipment and facility use, he said.

The scientists detailed their findings in the March 2008 issue of the journal Pacific Economic Review.

The hosting boost

The researchers also found that hosting the Olympic Games gives a country a big statistical boost in medal wins that year. Since China is hosting the 29th Olympiad this year in Beijing, the scientists predict this effect, combined with China's rising population and per-capita income, will allow the country to rake in 14 percent more medals this summer than it did in 2004.

"Hosting the Olympic games has a very strong effect," Lui said. "The climate and weather helps. All your athletes will be accustomed to the climate already."

Once they calculated the statistical strength of various factors on Olympic medal wins, the researchers examined how well certain countries performed after controlling for the effects of population and income. They found that some countries, such as Germany, China, Hungary, Romania, and even the United States, do better than could be expected based purely on their statistics.

"This is more about whether a country spends a lot of effort on training," Lui told LiveScience. "For example, in communist countries the central government starts training athletes at a very young age. They spend a disproportionate amount of money on sports. For the U.S., I think it's because spectator sports is a big business, like the NBA and tennis, therefore people go into these careers."

Underperformers

Other countries, such as Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong and India, underperform compared to what could be expected based on their size and income. Lui guessed this was because these countries have different priorities than those whose cultures place a large emphasis on sports.

"These countries spend too much attention on economic growth," he said. "In Hong Kong we don't support athletics, we don't have a large market for spectator sports. When you run sports like a business, you have very good athletes."