Tuesday, August 14, 2012

What Social Science can Learn from Olympic Medals Olympics

At his Forbes blog, Stefan Szymanski presents the data shown above, showing a >20% decline in the total number of Olympic medals won by the countries which comprise the EU-11.  

Writing at the FT, Simon Kuper quotes Szymanski to explain what is going on:
Western Europe and the US still occupy five of the top nine places in London’s medals table. But at the Rio Olympics of 2016, more developing countries should start following China into the elite. Stefan Szymanski, sports economist at the University of Michigan, says: “It entirely reflects what’s going on in the global economy. Their GDP is going up, so they are going to devote more resources to sport, so they are going to do better.”. . .

by 2016, Europe’s spending cuts will have bitten. Britain has already slashed funding for school sport. Across the west, athletes will lose resources.

Meanwhile new countries are rising. India – which had never won an individual gold medal before Beijing – is putting unprecedented public and private funds into sport. It has just four medals in London so far, but should improve in Rio.

“The dispersion of medals across the world must increase,” Szymanski says. “With many Olympic events, it’s quite easy breaking down those tasks into simple components and then building athletes who win gold medals. China is the classic example.”
While the macro-trends in the global economy appear to be well understood, as we have seen, it is quite another thing to be able to anticipate the particulars.  Social scientists and policy researchers should take note -- despite the subject matter, there is a very important lesson here about what sorts of outcomes are predictable and which are not.


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