Ricardo does the medal count


Olympic medal count predictions are good fun, especially by economists who put a model behind them. But with the Olympics over it’s already hard to care much about the medal race between China and the US. But maybe that’s because we used the wrong economists. You know, ones who are alive. Perhaps the best economist to learn a lesson from is David Ricardo, dead for nearly 200 years.

My favorite article about Ricardo is from Paul Krugman, published back in 1996. It’s called Ricardo’s Difficult Idea. In it Krugman speculates on why apparently capable intellectuals struggle so often with the idea of comparative advantage. In a nutshell that’s the idea that trade is mutually beneficial, even between countries at different levels of wealth. This obviously applies to China and the US, where the US is roughly 6x richer per capita. The Krugman piece linked to above is definitely worth a read, plus a great a refresher on the topic if you want it.

To apply Ricardo’s idea to medal counts, I pulled the totals from the Olympic site for both China and the US, and put them in the table below. I used Gold Medals counts only, not all medals, since that is the typical counting model (at least outside the US). Get gold or go home. Then I color coded the counts for the top six medal winning sports in each country.


So some overlap for swimming and gymnastics, but otherwise a very Ricardo-like situation. Complementary golds. Table Tennis, Diving and Badminton are pure China awesomeness. Swimming and Athletics (aka track & field) make up over half the US haul. They are US specialties. So a bit of overlap in swimming, which has a ton of medals, and a bit more in gymnastics. But it’s fair to say that China and the US are mostly doing their own thing.

In fact it’s surprising how rarely they compete head to head given how close the medal count totals wound up. When I paged through the 2012 Olympic Wikipedia medalist list, I had a hard time finding a case where China and the US both medaled in the same event. Even in gymnastics, which from my couch potato view had the most high profile competition, the US and China medaled in the same event only once, for balance beam. While there are more dual medal events if you look hard, mostly it’s for lower profile events like Women’s flyweight boxing. And this is all good. We’re both good at the Olympics, just at different sports. Comparative advantage is just fine. We should trade and be all mutually better off. They can school us with their Badminton awesomeness. And in turn we can school them with Michael Phelps. It’s a Ricardian paradise.

In contrast, a common spin on the Olympics is that China and US are competing head to head. And the sports competition aligns to our supposed superpower rivalry. But the Ricardian view is a better fit.  Most gold medal China and US sports are complementary, just like our economies. Personally the most exciting head to head competition was the 4x100m relay pictured below. The Jamaican’s with Bolt set a new world record of 36.04, with the US tying the old world record at 37.04. As the announcer said, it was the greatest 4x100m race ever run. When I watched the finish no one else was even close to the first two. A true head to head rivalry. Unlike nearly all the actual China and US medals.


Of course you can only take this kind of silliness so far. In particular using GDP and demographic predictions for medal counts appears to be a massive fail for India. India has 1.2 billion people compared to China’s 1.3 billion. And yet got zero golds this Olympics, and only six medals in total. Coincidentally I went to dinner with someone from India visiting the US recently during the Olympics, so we talked about it. He was a tad embarrassed by India’s showing, but then used the example of field hockey. India had one of the world’s best field hockey teams in the 1950’s and 1960’s, consistently winning gold medals. Then artificial turf became standard, and most Indian teams couldn’t afford artificial turf to practice on. The national team never recovered.

Here’s a case where history has more to teach than fuzzy economic analogies. State capitalism is your medal count friend, boosting China’s count even faster than their already speedy economic growth. And democracy, with poverty and severe corruption problems, is India’s medal count enemy. But longer term, in say 20 or perhaps 40 years, this could radically change. In the future a far richer India will have a larger projected 1.6B population compared to China’s steady but rapidly aging population of 1.3B. If India follows China’s trajectory out of poverty and solves some of its corruption problems, as seems likely, it could be a medal count superstar by our children’s time.

What sports? Well, field hockey of course. Also cricket (India’s national obsession) is a natural. Except that a single cricket match takes days, so it’s unlikely to become an Olympic sport. But if we’re speculating, why not double down? If India becomes an economic powerhouse they might force us all into watching Olympic cricket. I suppose from a Ricardian point of view this is expected. Narrowcasting sports by country. Unfortunately this is also a future where rhythmic gymnastics, that odd Eastern European specialty, never goes away. A prospect too depressing to contemplate.

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