Let's say you're a tiny, relatively poor country - take Kyrgyzstan, for example - dying to nab an Olympic medal in London this summer. What's your best strategy?
Nate Silver has a few ideas. He has come up with three metrics by which the "Kyrgyzstans of the world" could figure out which Olympic sports deliver the best return on investment:
The first one, economic balance, shows the wealth of Summer Olympics medal winners — as measured by their countries’ per capita G.D.P. — since 1996, the year my analysis begins. The second one, competitive balance, indicates how much a sport is dominated by a few countries. The final measure, medal abundance, indicates the number of medals awarded per competitor.
The goal is to find a less expensive sport that awards a lot of medals but isn't dominated by any one country. The event that does the very best? Wrestling. It has low start-up costs and a lot of medals (there are 18 different wrestling events, ranging from men's "Greco-Roman super heavyweight" wrestling to women's "freestyle flyweight"). Even better, there's not really a dominant wrestling country: Per Silver, 35 different countries have medaled in wrestling since 1996.
Kyrgyzstan does, in fact, really want to win this year. It has set an ambitious goal of winning three gold medals in 2012 and is offering its athletes $250,000 if they bring home a gold medal, more than twice what Russia pays its athletes.
According to Silver's model, they might have actually have a shot. They have focused heavily on - you guessed it - wrestling. The country will send four wrestlers to London, more entrants than Kyrgyzstan sent in any other event.