Over at Grantland, economists Tyler Cowen and Kevin Grier have an entertaining assessment of what strategies enable countries to amass lots and lots of Olympic medals.
Most of the advice is broadly sensible. Be a rich country with good infrastructure. Have lots of young people. (Sorry, Japan.) Invest lots of money in warding off child malnutrition. (That means you, India.) Focus on your comparative advantage. (If you don’t have lots of sandy beaches, maybe beach volleyball isn’t the sport for you?) There are also sneakier strategies:
A country can also win more medals by strategically focusing on events in which it is relatively easy to win medals. These tend to be events that are individual in nature and for which a lot of medals are handed out per event. Think boxing, or the martial arts, where a full set of medals is given in each weight class (taekwondo gives out four medals per weight class). Ireland’s best chance for a gold medal may well be Katie Taylor for women’s boxing.
Commonly with team sports there is just one set of medals for the entire sport — as with men’s basketball — and of course smaller and poorer countries will have a harder time reaching the top in those areas. Bulgaria has found Olympic success using these strategies. They’ve won 51 total gold medals in all the Summer Olympics, and 32 of them have come in three sports: weight lifting, wrestling, and shooting (with 12, 16, and four gold medals, respectively).
It’s worth reading the whole piece to see some of their predictions for future Olympics. Sure, China is a medal-collecting powerhouse right now, but what happens when the country starts aging rapidly, as demographers expect?