Engaging Ideas

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Olympics measuring, comparing and analyzing medal counts

During the Olympics a country medal count is standard.  Though countries may rearrange the count priority to make them look a bit better (see below a German by Gold ranking and a USA by total medal ranking).

Many links and jumping off points are offered here.


German newspaper rendition:  Germany #5 (US #2)


US newspaper rendition: U.S.  #1 (Germany #6)









image credit:  http://rubli.info/blog/2008/08/24/patriotism-olympic-style/

There are number of interesting graphical representations using Excel that show performance in a way that will engage students–and students can dig back into the data.  Best of all, the excel files are available for download!

Here’s a link for the 2012 Olympic games from the UK Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/datablog/2012/jul/30/olympic-medals-visualised-guardian


Excel Visualization of Olympic Medal Count (through 2008, but includes prior Olympics–can compare years with results shown on globe): http://www.enterprise-dashboard.com/excel-visualization-of-olympic-medal-count/











Excited!  Here are some improvements: http://chandoo.org/wp/2008/08/12/olympic-medals-excel-chart-improved/


That’s all pretty cool, but what does it mean?

Students can see patterns geographically that correspond also with wealth.  Students can use these graphs and discuss the patterns and they may be able to add new data from the London games to the excel sheets you can download and compare London results with prior results


Economist Dan Johnson of Colorado College is able to predict metal counts per county with more than 90 percent accuracy while using no information from specific athletes.  How does he do it?


The model includes five key variables: income per capita, population,
political structure, climate, and a host nation advantage.

Johnson has links to the data, but students might just try the easier measures of income per capita and population.

Says Johnson: “The Olympics are a celebration of the exceptional, and the fact that an economic model can predict medal counts so accurately simply points to the fact that there are underlying patterns that favor certain nations over others. I watch for excellence, wherever it occurs, and I cheer most loudly where it is unpredicted.” (http://www.freakonomics.com/2012/03/16/who-will-win-the-most-medals-in-the-2012-summer-olympics/)


Let’s Play Medalball!  from the New York Times:


Nate Silver does a statistical analysis on outcomes for particular sports.  For instance:


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  $16,452

2. Weight Lifting $16,715

3. Badminton $16,830


Highest G.D.P. per Medal Winner

32. Equestrian ** $39,834

31. Triathlon $38,354

30. Swimming $36,329

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.

Other data sources/tools:

Wikepedia has a shortable list of countries overall medal counts since inception along with countries that have not yet won a medal. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/All-time_Olympic_Games_medal_table

What does it take to win an Olympic medal?  –recounts key country advantages


Why spend more money just win more Olympic medals?  http://fullcomment.nationalpost.com/2012/07/16/andrew-coyne-why-spend-more-money-just-to-win-more-olympic-medals/


Feel free to share the lesson plan you developed! 🙂

Contributed by Dave Wells, Ph.D.

Arizona State University

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One thought on “Olympics measuring, comparing and analyzing medal counts

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