Handicapping the Olympic Games

The Olympics is meant to be a coming together of all the world’s athletes in the spirit of competition and fair play. Countries compete regardless of size and a significant amount of national pride goes into the mix. Sometimes too much, as we saw in the infamous 1936 Berlin Olympics where Hitler used the games as a platform for racial bigotry.

But if we stop to think about it, the biggest and richest countries have vast resources and advantages compared to the small. For some, like the former Soviet Union, enormous amounts of government spending went into supporting Olympic athletes. So is this a level playing field? Does it follow the spirit of the games?

Or even better, are the metrics appropriate? Are the countries that invest getting the bang for their buck?

What if, just for yucks, we handicapped the Olympic Games. Handicapping, if you don’t know, is the process of compensating for disadvantages to equalize the chance of winning. It’s a well-accepted way to create a level playing field in a range of sports from horse racing and golf to croquet.

The results end up very different and very interesting. There are several ways it can be sliced, and here are a few:

By population: Grenada, Cyprus and Slovenia come out on top, with the first Olympic powerhouse, the UK, showing up at number 11. The US comes in at number 43 and powerhouse China comes in at 56.

By Gross Domestic Product (GDP): Grenada tops the list again by a wide margin, with Jamaica and Mongolia following far behind. Now China becomes 43rd and the US occupies the 56th slot, just ahead of Thailand.

The devil in the details

The data, when broken out, tells a story that means more than simple medal tallies: What makes Grenada so great that it beats the biggest nations on earth when you slice by relative advantage? Is it a statistical anomaly? Sort of. With a relatively poor population of only 110,000 people on the Caribbean Island, their one gold medal in only their 8th time participating propels them to the top.

But wait…there’s a context that if you didn’t apply the right analysis, might lead you to the wrong conclusion. Until Grenada’s Kirani James won the Men’s 400 Meter event, they were on the list of teams who’ve never won any medals…a list led by Monaco with 28 empty-handed appearances (certainly a rich country, though small).

Does your business measure the right things? Are you proud for the right reasons or attacking the right problems? The devil is in the data and how you slice it.


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Categories: Data Analytics / Big Data

Author:Chris Taylor

Reimagining the way work is done through big data, analytics, and event processing. There's no end to what we can change and improve. I wear myself out...

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3 Comments on “Handicapping the Olympic Games”

  1. August 7, 2012 at 12:10 pm #

    Interesting post Chris. I liked the interactive graphing that shows different outcomes based on the different metrics.

  2. August 7, 2012 at 7:00 pm #

    This also begs the question of in-process measures to determine efficiency. I think it is interesting to look at the ultimate outcome over total input (medals/GDP), but there are a lot of things that directly impact the ability of a country to generate medals. The prime example of this is Germany. The entire athletic World was convinced East Germany and a West Germany would dominate after the fall of the Berlin Wall. If you combined their medal counts, they were a projected powerhouse. But, when they did come together, their collective medal counts faltered significantly. What gives?


  1. Olympic metrics would never work for business | Successful Workplace - August 11, 2012

    […] of the games’ start, I felt inundated; medal counts, country rankings, minutes, seconds, even alternative country rankings.  It was all so easy to report in the press but do those numbers really matter? Do they reflect […]

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