I meant to write this post a while ago, but since it’s the last night of the Olympics, I better get around to it.

First, I really enjoyed Nate Silver’s analysis of what the easiest and hardest sports to medal in are.  The basic principles: it should be cheap, not dominated already dominated by a few nations, and offer a lot of medals.  The winners: wrestling, tae-kwon-do, weightlifting

Interestingly, a recent post in the NY Review of Books basically finds that’s pretty much the exact approach East Germany took in their days of sporting dominance:

Most people think the Eastern Bloc’s success was simply a question of massive doping—women with Adam’s apples and beards. But smart countries realized there were other explanations for the success. Warsaw Pact governments spent a huge amount of money on sports, true, but the key was that they ruthlessly targeted only likely medal winners. East Germany, for example, never bothered with ice hockey because it realized it would have to train at least two dozen elite athletes just to field a team and even then would have a tough time against established powerhouses. Instead, it focused on sports where one athlete could win multiple medals—speed skating and cycling for example. It also avoided sports that depended on having leagues (ice hockey, basketball, baseball and so on); better to support athletes who trained alone because they required less infrastructure. And of course athletes like Katarina Witt got enough money—and national prominence—to make it a profession. Amateurism was for losers.

On a related note, interesting time to revisit this Wall Street Journal piece predicting Olympic medals (it did pretty good):

Instead, London should vindicate America’s decentralized and entrepreneurial approach to developing the world’s best athletes. The Wall Street Journal’s projections show Team U.S.A.’s 530 athletes should leave London with 40 gold medals and 108 overall, topping the Chinese, who are projected to collect 38 gold medals and 92 overall.

Actual results: 104 total and 46 gold for US; 87 total and 38 gold for China.


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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