Using a new statistical model, taking into account variables including previous medal performance, Gross Domestic Product (GDP), population, the effect of ‘home advantage’ and government investment in sport, a team led by David Forrest, Professor of Economics at Salford Business School, has drawn up a medal table forecast for more than 140 countries taking part in this year’s Olympic Games, which officially open in London this Friday.
The group of academics estimates that Great Britain will again finish fourth in the final medals count, although he suggests that the home nation will significantly close the gap on third-placed Russia. In Beijing, Team GB won 47 medals compared to Russia’s 73, but this time round his research points to the Russians collecting only 62, hinting at the possibility that the British team could just achieve third place.
The United States head the forecasted table with 112 medals, two more than 2008, with China’s 104 medals, an improvement of four on their home Olympics, securing second.
Professor Forrest leads the Madrid Sportometrics Study Group*, which beat more than six other highly respected research groups worldwide to most closely predict the Beijing 2008 final medals count by country. Having improved the statistical method the group uses ahead of London 2012, he is confident that it will perform well again.
“GDP per head of population and population size remain the most obvious guide to Olympic medal performance,” he explained, “but there are other variables which can significantly affect a country’s medal-winning potential.
“These include previous Olympic team medal achievement, the over-performance of communist and former communist countries compared to what would be expected given their resources, and the ‘host effect’, with the home national team expected to win more medals than usual.
“Before Beijing we also identified that countries who are due to host the next Olympics tend to win more medals at the Games immediately before their own. Great Britain, for example, went from 30 medals at Athens to 47 at Beijing, suggesting that investment in Olympic sports well ahead of hosting a Games has a marked impact in a relatively short space of time.
“In line with this, we’re predicting that at London 2012 the Brazilian team will win nearly double the number of medals they achieved in 2008 – up from 15 to 29. In contrast, we believe that Australia’s post-Sydney Olympics decline will continue, as we estimate they will win 38 medals in London compared to 46 in Beijing.”
This led Professor Forrest and his team to look into the relationship between government investment in sport and a country’s medal haul. Continued Professor Forrest: “We found that this expenditure on sport proved a very powerful predictor of medals won, and we hope that our forecast will be even more accurate this time round.”
Ultimately, Professor Forrest’s research points to the Olympics remaining overwhelmingly a ‘rich man’s Games’. “The International Olympic Committee is rightly committed to improving equality of opportunity in Olympic sport,” he said. “However, our research has shown that, for the most part, Olympic medals can be ‘bought’ by wealthier countries prepared to invest significantly in sports infrastructure, governing bodies and athletes.
“UK Sport spent an additional £165m on elite Olympic sport between Athens in 2004, when Team GB won 31 medals, and Beijing in 2008, when the team gained 47 medals. So, at least for developed, western nations, you could say that each medal ‘costs’ a country £10m.
“The IOC needs to focus its developing country aid programmes on sports where heavy investment in equipment and infrastructure isn’t needed. Our research suggests that the most ‘democratic’ sports, where the IOC can help countries with lower GDP get the most for their money, are boxing, gymnastics and wrestling, which account for about a fifth of all medals awarded at an Olympic Games.”