How much for an Olympic medal?

Winning medals is never a cheap affair.

Nations worldwide - including Malaysia - spend millions to ensure our athletes achieve some form of glory at major events especially the Olympics.

As the sporting world gears up for an epic encounter at the London Games, the New York Times offers a mathematical calculation to which event has better prospects at winning medals.

 How Much for an Olympic Medal?
It’s been almost a decade since the publication of “Moneyball,” Michael Lewis’s famous book-turned-movie about how the small-market Oakland Athletics used statistical artistry to compete against their (much) richer rivals. Billy Beane is still the A’s general manager, but here’s a modest proposal for his next act. He could become the head of another budget-strapped sports organization like, say, the Olympic Committee of Kyrgyzstan — or another small-market country with limited resources. Bishkek is nice this time of year!
How might Beane turn “moneyball” into “medalball”? Channeling him, 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 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 formula basically comes down to finding a sport that is cheap to compete in, isn’t already dominated and gives out a disproportionate number of medals. It suggests how an upstart Olympic nation can reach the podium a few times more often.
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. I’ve ranked sports by the average per capita G.D.P. of medal winners since 1996 and listed the top and bottom three below. The lower the number, the better the chance for a smaller or poorer country to succeed.
Lowest G.D.P. per Medal Winner
1. Rhythmic Gymnastics
2. Weight Lifting *
3. Badminton
Highest G.D.P. per Medal Winner
32. Equestrian **
31. Triathlon
30. Swimming
* Kazakhstan has won several weight-lifting medals.
** Even though Kyrgyzstan, in the steppes of Central Asia, has a lot of horses, equestrian events would be a questionable use of resources.
Competitive balance, a favorite phrase of the baseball commissioner, Bud Selig, examines the share of medals won by the three most dominant countries in each sport. Badminton is favorable to poorer countries, but Indonesia, China and South Korea have won 85 percent of the medals since 1996. A medalball country should look elsewhere. Here, I’ve ranked events by the share of medals won by countries outside the top three in the sport. The higher the percentage, the better the odds for an outsider.
Most Wide Open
1. Sailing *
2. Rowing
3. Tae Kwon Do
Least Wide Open
32. Badminton
31. Table Tennis **
29. Rhythmic Gymnastics (tie)
29. Beach Volleyball (tie)
* The winds can influence almost any outcome. Thirty countries (including Lithuania, Israel and Hong Kong) have won at least one medal in sailing.
** China has won 30 of the 48 table-tennis medals since 1996.
NUMBER OF PLAYERS (per medal awarded)
Some sports are generous with their medals. Gymnastics allows athletes to compete in multiple disciplines, wrestling awards four medals per weight class and there is just less interest in sports like tae kwon do. Others aren’t. 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.
Most Medals per Participant
1. Tae Kwon Do *
2. Gymnastics
3. Wrestling
Fewest Medals per Participant
32. Soccer **
31. Field Hockey
30. Handball
* During the 2008 Olympics, 32 tae kwon do medals were distributed among only 126 athletes. It awards two bronze medals per weight class.
** In 2008 there were six soccer medals awarded among nearly 500 athletes.
Billy Beane’s statistical holy grail was on-base percentage. Medalball, however, doesn’t have one. Sports that seem favorable by one measure, like badminton, are prohibitive by another. But wrestling, tae kwon do and weight lifting would be Beane’s best bets. These sports, which tend to rely more on brute physical strength than highly refined athletic abilities, factored the highest by my criteria. A number of the most unfavorable sports — including the bottom-ranked one, field hockey — are team sports, or ones in which there is rich professional competition.
This analysis, however, is really just the tip of the iceberg. Further analysis of the competitors within each sport could yield more opportunities. (Perhaps men’s skeet shooting could prove especially medal-rich?) That said, here’s my index for the easiest and hardest sports for a small-market country to medal in.
FINAL RESULTS (It’s 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.
An extended list of the easiest sports to medal in:
4. Boxing *
5. Gymnastics
6. Judo
* Recent medalists include Tonga, Mongolia and Kazakhstan.

32. Field Hockey 1.45
India was once strong in this event, but wealthy nations like the Netherlands and Australia have stood atop the podium recently.
30. Triathlon 2.38
The intense training has made it mostly a luxury for wealthier nations; Australia, Switzerland and New Zealand have medaled the most since it was introduced in 2000.
31. Basketball 2.37
Rich nations are the only ones able to stand a chance against the United States in the Dream Team era.
And more of the hardest:
29. Synchronized Swimming
28. Equestrian
27. Beach Volleyball *
* Switzerland is the only landlocked country ever to medal.
Nate Silver runs the FiveThirtyEight blog. His book “The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail but Some Don’t” is due out in September.
Editor: Jon Kelly

HD says: Have we ever done such a study - or any form of studies on our participation at major events?


  1. Why do we need studies? Are we ever going to believe in the results? When you have so many experts coming on TV commenting on everything under the sun (at least about sports) don't need data to tell you otherwise. Arena's recent coverage of SUKMA as a joke ...with journo's commenting on nutrition, training as if they had a multitude of degrees in that given field.....We have become a nation of rejecting findings that tell us the truth!

  2. We cannot use $$ to measure how many medals we will win! If we can, then a lots of other RICH nations already win a lot of medals.
    Again, a study or finding is just just to support a fact. Elite sports needs combination of all.

  3. Is not easy to win gold medal in olympic with support from all. Please support by highlighting the athletes stories. What they have to endure to reach that level. Don't just focus on the negative reporting.

    Son of the gun

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