Medalball

What if you could apply the tactics of Moneyball to the Olympic Games? Nate Silver performs a neat thought experiment to do just that. As he writes, “I’ve identified three measures that, when weighted equally, suggest the sports in which the Kyrgyzstans of the world could direct their energy and resources to maximize their medal count.” The formula can be broken down to three parts:

Find a cheap sport:

The average medal winner comes from a country with per capita G.D.P. of $27,000 in today’s dollars, which is well above the worldwide average of around $11,000. But wealthy nations haven’t claimed every sport. Indonesia has won many medals in badminton; Belarus and Ukraine are powers in rhythmic gymnastics. 

Pick a sport with most medals awarded per participant:

Team sports like soccer require a lot of players for a single medal; that’s expensive and illogical for a medalball country. So I ranked the number of medals awarded in the 2008 Olympics, per event, for every 10 athletes participating. The higher the number, the better the chance of a medal.

The final tip is to pick a sport where the diversity of country winners (outside of the top three) is large. Putting these together, Nate Silver concludes the following sports are best for producing a medalball country (scores out of 10 points; 5 is average):

1. Wrestling 8.78
Thirty-five countries, including Kyrgyzstan, have medaled in wrestling since 1996.

2. Tae Kwon Do 8.76
Though an Olympic sport only since 2000, it already has among the most diverse lists of medal-winning countries, including Afghanistan and Venezuela.

3. Weight Lifting 8.69
Its eight male (and seven female) weight classes give athletes of all sizes a chance. The poorer nations of Southeast Asia have done well in the lighter classes.

A great thought experiment!

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