Still impressive.

Photographer: Phil Walter/Getty Images

What the Olympics Don't Measure

Mark Whitehouse writes editorials on global economics and finance for Bloomberg View. He covered economics for the Wall Street Journal and served as deputy bureau chief in London. He was previously the founding managing editor of Vedomosti, a Russian-language business daily.
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People often see a country's Olympic success as a measure of its overall greatness. A quick and unscientific look at the results in Rio de Janeiro, though, suggests that it might reflect little more than a commitment to do well at the Olympics.

Let's start by defining success. The number of medals alone doesn’t work, because first place should count more than second and bigger countries will naturally win more. So I'll assign points for each medal (3 for gold, 2 for silver, 1 for bronze) and then adjust the total for the country's population. Through this looking glass, countries such as Jamaica, Australia, Great Britain and Kazakhstan all do better than the U.S. Here's the ranking (for countries that earned at least 10 points):

A Measure of Olympic Success
Source: Bloomberg

Now let's see if this measure bears any relation to other indicators of a country's prowess. Consider wealth, expressed as gross domestic product per person. A simple statistical analysis, known as a regression, finds that GDP per capita explains basically none of the variation in countries' performance at Rio. This can be expressed visually in a scatter plot. If the relationship were strong and positive, the points in the chart below would roughly form a diagonal line, rising from left to right:

Pretty much the same goes for happiness -- as measured by the World Happiness Report, which combines various survey results to come up with a score for how happy a country's people are. Here's how that looks:

So much for that. How about the quality of a country's government? The World Bank produces measures that look at various aspects of governance, including corruption, violence, political stability and accountability. Taken together, they do a bit better than wealth and happiness: The regression finds that they explain about 7 percent of performance at Rio. Still, that's not much. Here's the scatter plot:

In short, success at the Rio Olympics isn’t correlated with much of anything that people use to judge countries. Rather, as the social scientist Danyel Reiche has asserted, it probably has a lot more to do with how countries choose to allocate resources. Some take a laissez-faire approach. Others focus on the competition as a matter of national pride, and so devote a lot more money and effort to identifying and training athletes, and to gaining an advantage in specific sports. The persistently strong performance of the nations of the former Soviet Union offers a testament to how effective such investments can be -- even if people aren't well off as a whole.

That may not be very satisfying for the nationalists in the grandstands. It's certainly no reason, though, to be any less impressed by what individual athletes do.

  1. Excluding two outliers with very small populations. Apologies to Grenada and the Bahamas.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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