For the last several years that I’ve been gathering data on the Olympics, I’ve kept up economic indicators – it just seems somewhat intuitive that countries with a better economic foundation and resources would have better ability to train and compete in the Olympics. However, every time I’ve run the numbers, there just really don’t end up being any legitimate correlations. The highest is still only a weak to moderate correlation between Olympic Achievement and the Corruption Perception Index – a human development index that measures the amount of trust a country’s population has in their government. However, even that one is not strong.
As fun as it would be to find some correlations, I think I’m actually pretty encouraged that there actually aren’t really any strong correlations between national wealth and the ability to compete and win in the Olympics. It would feel pretty anti-Olympic spirit if you had to be from a few select countries to be competitive. That being said, it would be fascinating to see what the Olympics would look like if everyone were competing from an even playing field.
However, even though there isn’t a ton of correlation within a given Games, when you start to compare the Summer and the Winter games, you do start to see some definite differences.
Below are few visualizations showing data from both the Rio and the PyeongChang games that illustrate some pretty significant differences between the countries that participate in the Summer Games (207 countries in Rio) and the Winter Games (93 in PyeongChang).
The bubble chart is plotting Olympic Achievement (vertical/y axis) and GDP Purchasing Power Parity/capita (an adjusted national economic indicator per person). The size of each bubble is based on the Opportunity Efficiency (weighted medals won per opportunity) and colored by Weighted Medals. There’s a much clearer line in the PyeongChang data (a correlation of 0.41) vs the much more blobbed shape (the technical term, I’m sure) of the Rio data (correlated at -0.02).
The two pie charts show a much broader distribution of weighted medals across both regions as well as national income groups in the Summer Games vs the Winter Games. The Rio Games had 56.5% of weighted medals from High Income countries and 35.7% from Middle Income countries, whereas the (so far incomplete data from the) PyeongChang games show a fairly mind-boggling 94.2% of weighted medals from High Income countries.
The bar chart shows Opportunity Efficiency colored by income group. In the Summer Games, the top of the list includes actually more Low Income countries than High where the Winter games is 100% High Income. It’s important to note that a good Opportunity Efficiency score doesn’t require a lot of medals – if you have three opportunities and win 1, you’re still doing pretty well.
Summer Olympics – 2016 Rio
Winter Olympics – 2018 PyeongChang
And when you compare straight numbers, it’s pretty clear that the countries participating in the Winter Games are on average richer than the average of all in the Summer Games (there are a few exceptions, but in general, the Venn diagram of countries participating in Winter and Summer Games, if a country is participating in the Winter Games, it’s a high likelihood that they participated in Summer, where the reverse is not necessarily true). The average of both GDP and GDP PPP per capita for Winter Games participating countries is around $7-8k higher than the average for Summer Games participants (which, again, includes almost all of the Winter participants).
Rio (left) vs PyeongChang (right) Economic Indicators
So, in the Olympic Spirit, anyone can compete in anything, you’re a lot better off in the Winter Games if you come from a richer country. Presumably this is because the Winter sports require a lot more equipment, access to formal sites, travel and well, snow and ice. And if you don’t have that where you are, you have to be able to get there. Which is time and money. Dollar dollar bills, y’all.