Archive for Friday, February 10, 2006

Medal forecast is in the money

Economics professor predicts final outcome

February 10, 2006

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— Dan Johnson can't give you a lot of history or results on this latest round of Olympians, if that's what you're after.

No Olympic previews strewn across his Colorado College office.

No split times. No McTwists. No triple-axels.

Wouldn't know the Flying Tomato from a good marinara.

But he can tell you who'll win. And that's what it's all about, judging by the number of times you keep hearing "medal count" on your TV.

Here's how good Johnson was on Athens: Predicted 103 medals for the United States overall and 37 golds.

Actual count: 103 medals, 35 golds.

And Johnson's not just projecting U.S. results, either. He applies his formula worldwide with a success rate of 95 percent.

How does he do it? Economics, mostly. But apparently it helps if you are or used to be a communist.

In other words, Johnson's not your average handicapper.

An associate professor of economics, trained at the London School of Economics and Yale, Johnson used previous research to come up with a formula in 1999. He and an assistant predicted a nation's Olympic success based on per-capita income, population, past performance and political system.

Conclusion: Certain nations have a "measurable, continuing advantage," and they should remember that if they insist on emphasizing medal counts over a good story line.

Not that this comes as much of a surprise. Big and rich is pretty much a universal formula for success.

But Johnson not only can predict approximately how many medals a country will win, he can quantify it.

Want to send an additional athlete from your nation to the Games? It'll cost you an additional $260 per capita income.

An extra medal: $1,700. But if you want gold, it's $4,750.

Johnson's aware that this hardly sounds like something Jim Lampley could wax rhapsodic about as Bode Miller flails to a fantastic, frantic finish.

Critics ask the professor how he dares to reduce the thrill of competition to a vulgar bottom line.

His reply: You argue with numbers.

Even he couldn't believe it at first. His predictions for Sydney were so good that he figured he and his assistant, Ayfer Ali, must have made an error in coding.

But it was all good. At least until Salt Lake City, where he predicted 20 medals for the United States, seven of them gold.

And what happens? The U.S. comes up with its greatest performance ever, 34 medals and 10 golds, second only to Germany.

"We definitely underestimated," Johnson says, still sounding a little chagrinned.

Possible reasons: Maybe we were lucky. Maybe we trained harder.

Maybe we had an advantage in new Olympic events we'd already conquered, such as snowboarding.

Home field advantage? Not really. On average, Johnson says it's only worth about one gold medal and maybe three medals total.

Considering how much he underestimated the United States last time, you'd think he'd factor that in for Turin. Experts call this an even deeper team than the last one.

But Johnson's not changing anything. For these Games, he predicts 22 medals for the U.S., eight of them gold, which would put us in fourth place behind Germany, Russia and Norway.

"We've stuck to the same formula on the principle that we didn't tweak it in the past," Johnson says.

Not that he hasn't been tempted before by other anomalies. China, for instance, consistently outperforms projections.

"Something special is happening there in the athletic community," Johnson says. "One could almost make the same argument now about U.S. winter athletes."

Steroids, Doc?

"I certainly hope not," he says, laughing.

Biggest differences between winter and summer? Per-capita income drives success even more in winter, though smaller nations tend to fare better in winter than summer. There's also less host nation bias in winter, and it doesn't hurt if your homeland occasionally freezes over.

Translation: Don't bet on Kenya in cross-country skiing.

Maybe you knew that. Still, it hasn't kept heads of sports ministries from calling with what Johnson calls "disquieting requests" about what he recommends.

Other than counseling them to get richer and have more babies, he's clueless.

"I'm not in the athletics business," he says.

But he does have a moral: "We already know the playing field is not level, so we need to account for that by celebrating those countries that go over and above expectations."

So here's to another big haul from the U.S. And you go, Moldova.

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