The Olympics and Economics

There’s something inexplicably uplifting about sporting success. Not only does it inspire — even if fleetingly — at an individual level, it fosters national pride, a feeling rarely experienced in our networked world of partisan sniping. India’s best-ever performance at the Tokyo Olympics gave me, you, and millions of other Indians a reason to chin up in these challenging times.

So begins Pranay’s essay today from his (and RSJ’s) excellent newsletter, Anticipating the Unanticipated. The essay is a rumination on the role of government in sports, and as Pranay rightly points out, the implicit assumption that most of us make is that government should play a bigger role in fostering an environment more conducive to sporting excellence.

“Fostering an environment more conducive to sporting excellence” ought to at least get me an interview with a consulting firm, so I’ll translate that into plainspeak. The government should spend more, and work more on building out better sporting facilities, hiring better coaches, paying our sportspeople more, and more besides – all so that we win more medals.

Pranays disagrees with this view (and I agree with Pranay). This job, he says, is best left to markets and society.

Consider the role of markets first. Not too long ago, cricket would be criticised by players of other sports for hogging all the popularity, attention, and resources. And then a commercial, entertainment-focused enterprise such as the IPL turned this argument on its head. The city-based league format pioneered in India though IPL proved to be a positive-sum game for other sports. It spawned similar leagues in several sports, even managing to bring back Kabbadi to primetime TV screens. This commercial model energised many sports in ways that no government medals could have done.
At the amateur level, reforms in India’s FDI policy finally brought world-class sporting retailers such as Decathlon to India. Earlier, the sports retailing scene was stagnant, with few old-style shops only catering to demands of select, mass-market sports. By getting out of the way, the government helped change the sports equipment landscape for millions of budding sportspersons in the country. In short, markets are critical to lasting sporting success.

I agree, for the most part, but with government support, about which I’ll write more in a bit. Pranay also makes the case for the third pillar to do its bit:

Take the role that the MRF Pace Foundation has played in producing fast bowlers in India. Or the contribution of the Tata Group in improving hockey facilities in Odisha. We need many more philanthropic initiatives of this nature.
Besides the well-established corporates, there are smaller non-profit organisations such as the GoSports Foundation and Olympic Gold Quest. These organisations sponsor and support talented Indian sportspersons so that they can become world-class. Perhaps, we need hundreds of such societal initiatives outside the government to achieve sporting excellence.

By the way, here’s a good (and fairly straightforward) paper to read on this issue:

Every four years it begins anew, the hand-wringing and finger-pointing over a poor showing at the Olympics. The only real uncertainty is which countries will feel the sharpest disappointment over their poor performances. After the
Barcelona Olympics, a headline in the New York Times read “Despite its 108 medals, U.S. rates mixed success.” In 1996, headlines in London trumpeted “Olympic shame over Britain’s medal tally” and “Britain in danger of being left at the starting line,” while in Mexico, Japan, Singapore, Colombia and Egypt, medal totals below expectations led to national self-examinations. After Sydney, in Canada the Globe and Mail bemoaned “Canada’s Olympic fears come true: Despite a few bright spots, athletes not only won fewer medals, they performed below their own and nation’s expectations.” In this paper, we ask the straightforward question of how many medals countries should be expected to win by considering what factors influence national Olympic success

Read the whole paper, of course, but here’s a key bit:

Over time, a country’s real GDP remains the single best predictor of Olympic performance. Population and per capita GDP contribute equally at the margin implying that two countries with identical levels of GDP but different populations and per capita GDP levels will win the same number of medals. While GDP is most of the story, it is not the whole story. Host countries typically win an additional 1.8 percent of the medals beyond what would be predicted by their GDP alone. The forced mobilization of resources by governments clearly can also play a role in medal totals. On average, the
Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries won a share of medals higher by 3+ percentage points than predicted by their GDP

As Pranay mentions in his newsletter, sure you could sponsor projects of national pride, but the opportunity costs are far too high.1.

But ultimately, economic well-being is a good predictor of doing well in the Olympics. So what can (and more importantly, should) a government do about increasing the tally of medals at the Olympics?

As with much else in life, just one thing:

  1. Grow the economy as rapidly as possible

… but that being said, help (state, markets or communities – or all three) is needed. This video, via MR (and remember, this is the USA), shows how difficult the economics of being an Olympian are:

If you can afford to help out, please do! 🙂

  1. He doesn’t put it like that, the phrasing is mine[]

One thought on “The Olympics and Economics

  1. I saw this video a few days ago and I too had a lot of questions regarding the economics of sports. Olympic sports are a weird category in and of themselves! Surely they’re not like other sports which generate revenue through viewership as entertainment. I see only two ways in which sports succeed, either through state sponsorship or through its audience. Olympic sports, and not the event itself, of course, lack the latter considerably; then surely it will have to be state sponsorship, right? There was a time when medals were won by army personnel as athletes in the Olympics. What’s you take on state-backed regular salaries for all athletes and not only the elites rather than only cash prizes, meagre stipends and private sponsorships? I wonder where that money will come from! Do you think it can be done?

Leave a Reply