Examining the relationship between GDP and medal rankings also offers some lessons on how globalization distributes rewards among countries.
On the positive side, the Olympic success of some developing nations appears to reflect rising living standards, which increase the likelihood that gifted athletes will get to exploit their talents. China is a vivid example: In 1988 the Chinese won just 28 medals, five of which were gold, but in 2000 they won 59 medals, 28 of which were gold. In Athens, the Chinese had won 57 medals as of yesterday, with three days of competition left.
(Kai Pfaffenbach -- Reuters)
Driving that improvement, Warner and other experts agree, is China's transformation from a largely peasant-based economy to an industrial powerhouse. That has bestowed better health on millions of Chinese and given the government in Beijing the resources to fund a nationwide network of sports schools; as an extra incentive, the government provides cash bonuses for medalists, with a gold worth $24,000, and potentially much more in corporate donations.
China's stellar record at Athens, to be sure, is something of a special case because the 2008 games are slated to take place in Beijing, "and any country that is going to host the Olympics starts ratcheting up their system before they get the bid," said David Wallechinsky, an author who has written books about the Olympics. "For China, this idea of doing well in the Olympics is massive; they're thinking, 'We're going to be proud of ourselves.' "
But even as some developing nations have garnered more Olympic glory, the rich have gotten richer -- medal-wise, just as they have in terms of GDP.
According to one study, the wealthiest 10 percent of countries have increased their proportion of medals, from 35 percent in 1952 to 42 percent in 2000. In part, that's because many of the new Olympic sports -- softball and beach volleyball, for example -- are not exactly typical Third World pursuits.
"There's a bit of trickle-down, because the pool of medals is getting larger, and a few drops of it are going to smaller nations," said Daniel K.N. Johnson, a Colorado College economist who co-authored the study. "But in percentage terms, the richest are grabbing an increasing share of those new medals. You can guess one of the reasons -- new sports are introduced by and large by the rich nations. We're not playing indigenous African games. We introduce things like trampoline, and curling."
The GDP factor is presumably even stronger now because during the Cold War the Soviet bloc nations spent lavishly on nurturing Olympic competitors to showcase the virtues of socialism. Their medal counts zoomed accordingly, even as their economies stagnated. In 1988, both the Soviet Union and East Germany topped the United States.
Much of that sports infrastructure has since fallen into disrepair, although to some extent the legacy remains -- Romania's continued excellence in gymnastics being a case in point. Russia's medal harvest at Athens is probably attributable in no small part to the efforts by President Vladimir Putin to resurrect his country's sports machine. Moscow has reportedly tripled spending on sports and offers bonuses of up to $50,000 for gold medalists.
Similar factors help explain why Cuba remains an overperformer, said Meghan R. Busse, a University of California at Berkeley professor who co-authored a study on Olympic results with Bernard. "They have political reasons to show they can do well," she said.