The Olympics are over, and the verdict is in: America won. The United States left Rio with the most gold, silver and bronze medals. The last time a single nation topped all three categories was 40 years ago (except for boycotted games in 1980 and 1984). The U.S. lead over the second-place finisher was 51 medals, the largest gap in a nonboycotted Olympics since 1932. If “America doesn’t win anymore,” someone forgot to tell its Olympic athletes.
Winning in the Olympics doesn’t translate directly into success in other spheres, but here’s what the Olympics can teach us about the world. (Hat tip to Greg Myre of NPR for an excellent piece on this.)
Despite its problems, the United States still soars above the competition. And yet, looking at the numbers, we can see clearly “the rise of the rest.” The United States has taken between 10 and 20 percent of all medals for most of the modern Olympics. But over the past 30 years, the number has dipped to the bottom of that range. This mirrors the story of the United States’ relative economic strength. It remains No. 1, but its share of global gross domestic product has dipped over the past few decades, as emerging nations have seen their slice of the global pie grow.
The single largest piece of this story is, of course, China. Its rise in the Olympics, as in economics, is dazzling. In the 1980s, China started out as a player in the Olympics. By 1992, it ranked fourth, with 54 medals. In 2000, the country placed third. Today, it is No. 2.
So what is the key to Olympic success? Economists and statisticians have tried to construct models that predict medal tallies. The simplest and most reliable predictors seem to be population size and, even more important, GDP.
But there is the Soviet effect. If a centralized dictatorship focuses obsessively on sports, it can boost its tallies significantly. The Soviet Union often led the world in the Olympics during the Cold War, and East Germany was an Olympic powerhouse — though athletes from both are now believed to have been systematically and massively doped. China today certainly benefits from a lavishly funded, centrally directed focus on winning medals, which is why its lower tally this year will probably cause heads to roll back in Beijing.
The most consistent and astonishing underperformer is India, the world’s second most populous country and its seventh largest economy. India won two medals in Rio, or one for every 650 million people. By comparison, Azerbaijan won 18, one for every 500,000 of its people, doing more than 1,000 times better.
Why? Poverty is the easy explanation. India is still a very poor country per capita. But why does it do so much worse than other impoverished nations? To put it in perspective, India’s per capita GDP now is about what China’s was in 2000. That year, China won 58 medals (with 28 golds), about 30 times as many as India won this summer.
Some Indians chalk it up to their nation’s messy democracy. But developing and democratic countries such as Kenya, South Africa and Turkey do much better. It turns out that good public policy is key, says Danyel Reiche, who has written a book to try to explain the secrets of Olympic success. He asks, for instance, why Kenya is able to win 29 times as many medals as Saudi Arabia, though it is 17 times poorer. His answer is a policy formula that he terms “WISE,” which breaks down into four areas: empower women in order to unlock the potential of half the population; build strong sports institutions in the country; specialize in some sports; and become an early adopter of new techniques and sports. Countries that adopt some of these strategies do well — New Zealand, Denmark, Croatia and, most remarkably, Jamaica.
India’s underperformance in the Olympics might be one more reflection of an enduring feature of the Indian landscape: private excellence but public incompetence. Government in India works very badly. But there is more to it than that. India does not have the unified nationalist fervor that China brings to these global competitions. Perhaps that is because of India’s diversity, perhaps for other reasons, but it is difficult to imagine the country uniting as China did for the Beijing Olympics.
And then there is the United States — decentralized, unplanned, chaotic, with a government everyone loves to hate — and yet it’s the undisputed champ. Why? Partly because U.S. public policy actually works quite well and has encouraged excellence in many sports. Mostly it is a reflection of the American spirit , which celebrates individualism, embraces diversity and relentlessly pushes for excellence. And that spirit is even more important than winning.