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Eagle-eyed economist eyes Turkey’s Olympic success

Loyal readers will know that economists love to poke their noses into more mundane matters than monetary policy or the current account, whether it be Crimean-Congo Fever or abortion policy.

They also seem undeterred by their failure to predict the global crisis, or even more recently the European football champion. Their latest foray into forecasting has been the Olympic medal count: Several academics and research houses built statistical models to try to predict how many medals each country would win in London.

Here’s the intro. to my latest Hurriyet Daily News (HDN) column. You can read the whole thing at the HDN website. The title reveals that the column discusses whether Turkey was successful at the Olympics. To do that, I first summarize the statistical models used to forecast Olympics medal performance. I then use four models outlined by the Financial Times too see whether Turkey performed better or worse than expected. Finally, I briefly try to tackle why that was the case. And since I was touching on several different topics briefly, I have a long addendum.

But before I go on, I should say a few words about the motivation for the column: I was planning to write something on the economics of the Olympics– maybe the benefits and costs of hosting the Olympics (a money-loss proposition, but not all the time), or a major event for that matter (here’s the blog version), or whether or not athletes should be taxed (Bloomberg’s Josh Barro took on the issue with a couple of op-eds), the amazing similarity between U.S. income and medal inequality, or something along those lines. But then as Turkey started performing worse than expected, everyone started discussing the reasons behind this lackluster performance. The tide turned a bit when the country won the gold and silver in a performance worthy of game theory classes in the women’s 1500m. event, but I thought a more scientific approach would nevertheless be interesting.

As I mention in the column, you could come up with lots of other interesting variables to forecast medals won by a country. Or you could improve on existing ones. For example, you can take demographics into account by looking at the youth population. I skimmed through a dozen or so papers doing this exercise, and I’ve seen one thing lacking in all of them: The relationship between participation and medals won: I’d argue for something like this:  First, you participate in only areas you are good at, so your medals/athlete is high. Then, it falls as you start participating in more sports, and then it rises again because of learning by doing (read experience) affects. Turkey’s failure was mostly in wrestling and weightlifting, and Australia’s in swimming and track & field, areas where they are usually strong, but I’d love to test this out nevertheless. The blog R-bloggers looks at medals won per athlete, which they dub efficiency, but as you can see, my idea is different; I am envisaging a relationship through time, which would make past performance, a common variable in these analyses, a bit more convoluted.

BTW, I read a lot of academic papers, columns, news articles, etc., in preparing for this column- if you want more papers than those used by the FT, R-bloggers and topendsports summarize other papers. Anyway, after all this reading, to seems to me there are several ways to win a medal:

  1. You are a global power (economic/military/political), and winning lots of medals is part of the game, so you use your vast resources to win medals. U.S. is the best example of this.
  2. You are a communist country, and so you have “medal-winning institutions” in place. The former Soviet Union and satellites were the obvious examples of this model, but being a former communist country works as well, as the institutions stay in place. Hungary is a good example of this.
  3. Finally, you have my favorite group: Small rich countries that have spread sports to the masses: Netherlands, New Zealand, Australia (Australia did worse than expected this time around).

China is a mixture of one and two: It is trying to compete with the U.S. on the medal arena as a super-power (that’s why their project 119 concentrated on sports with the highest medals offered in the Olympics), but on the other hand, as seen in the widely-publicized torture-training photos of three-years old Olympics hopefuls, it is using methods that could not be implemented in the U.S., or other democratic countries, to say the very least:)

Interestingly enough, I have seen some studies that document U.S. teens spend less time in sports (when they are kids, they do more sports, but then it suddenly drops considerably after puberty, maybe this is not surprising at all to someone who has spent some time in the U.S., i.e. the soccer moms and the idle teens). None of the models chosen by the FT takes this into consideration, so maybe that’s why Japan took home, on average, 10 more medals than expected. Iran is another great success story, which I am not sure how to explain. Speaking of that, it really pays to have a look at which countries under/over-performed in the Olympics. BTW, Tyler Cowen was making, different from others, longer-term predictions. One of this big themes was that Japan would start underperforming, not the least because of its demographics. That’s not the case, at lease for now. BTW, another reason for Japan’s success could be the huge popularity of the Olympics in the country- it was reported in today’s Turkish papers (in Turkish) that medal-winning Japanese athletes were greeted by 500,000 Japanese during a special parade for them in Tokyo. Football clubs could not gather that much support in Turkey, and there were pictures in Turkish papers of our own medal-winners welcomed by a couple of family members at train stations. Another potential explanatory variable for the medal-count regressions, but I am not sure on how to measure that- although it will probably be correlated to the level of physical activity of the population.

Coming back to that, Radikal columnist Guven Sak, in his column on Friday (in Turkish), mentioned a Lancet paper with cross-comparisons of physical activity across the world. The paper (free after a two-minute registration) has data on prevalence of regular activity for teenagers and adults as well as daily activity for 13-15 year-olds. I would love to integrate this data into the medal forecasting regressions.  BTW, Lancet has a whole series on physical activity, in case you are interested.

Speaking of forecasting, the number of medals is not the only thing people have forecasted: R-bloggers has a piece on forecasting the 100m. sprint results and there is even a paper on how many records would fall in London– you can see for yourselves how successful these exercises were.

BTW, Wall Street Journal (WSJ) and R-bloggers seem to have won the medals for Olympics articles. WSJ had this great piece on the countries who had the most last-place finishes, where the U.S. does surprisingly well- but of course, you’d need to control for number of participants there. R-bloggers follows up the WSJ on that. R-bloggers had several as well, on medal statistics as well as several exercises in R (more hyperlinked in that post)  related to the Olympics.

And since I am at it, let me touch upon some other topics I mentioned in the column. One is home court advantage, which NPR and R-bloggers discussed. I also found the presentation for an academic paper back from the Sydney Olympics. Economic Logic makes the point I made, using Phelps and U.S. Basketball, that there are just too many medals available  in some sports. But then again, athletes develop different skills for different medals, so the issue is a bit more complicated than “let’s decrease swimming medals and give each basketball player one separate medal”. WSJ has a couple of well-written articles on these issues, if you are interested. BTW, The Big Picture has highlighted the chart from the WSJ article I linked in the column- the one on different medal rankings, an issue naturally related to my column as well. And finally, the FT has approached the relationship between GDP per capita and medals from an emerging markets perspective, using Beijing 2008 data.

Let me mention my data sources as well, while I am at it: The medal count is from the London 2012 official page. I also confirmed there Michale Phelp’s medal tally, as well as the U.S. basketball team had indeed won a single gold. I was pretty sure of both, but you can’t afford such mistakes when you are writing a column. I found out Nauru was indeed the least populous country participating in the Olympics from Wikipedia and the Guardian’s athletes visualized list.

While I have Turkey in the title, you would agree that the column is not about Turkey at all until the very end, so it would be useful if I said a few more words on my Vaterland: To start with, the “hardware versus software analogy” at the very end  belongs to Esen Caglar, analyst at Ankara think-tank TEPAV, where Guven Sak, the author of the Radikal article mentioned earlier, is Managing Director. Econ. Prof. Emrah Aydonat, who is also affiliated with TEPAV, was kind enough to send me the news article from Turkish daily Hurriyet on the PM’s orders for athletes to be “imported” from the Turkic Republics:

I am sorry it is in Turkish, but I had to convince you that I, or HDN for that matter, wasn’t making that up:) The original article is here, BTW.

Finally, this is probably my longest column to date, and also probably the one with the most hyperlinks. So if you made this far, especially without being distracted by all the hyperlinks, you deserve to be entertained. First, a picture from a loyal reader who liked my column and decided to send me an “Olympics Certificate”:

That’s me BTW, in my Besiktas jersey, for those of you who are used to the view from my derriere:)… BTW, that picture was taken during Besiktas championship celebrations in June 2009, but I had no idea it was on Facebook- that’s where the reader got it, I assume- unless he is a company man, but even then, I don’t think there is any reason for the company to be tracking me:) Speaking of Besiktas, in case you are not Turkish, it is the Besiktas eagles! So now, you can see the wordplay in the title:)

Before I conclude, I should note for some added entertainment that the most interesting part of the Turkish medal count for me was the medal distribution by gender. The men won in fighting sports, whereas the women triumphed in running. For some reason, that brought Charles Darwin to my mind:) Or my International Women’s Day column. BTW, this observation is not originally mine: It was made by a non-Turkish guy at Twitter last week, but it quickly became very popular…

11 Responses to “Eagle-eyed economist eyes Turkey’s Olympic success”

sgiAugust 20th, 2012 at 8:36 pm

I am curious, why do you think, post-communist countries have an advantage getting a medal… In the communist era, to be a successful sportsman meant really an advantage: they had a possibility travelling (travelling abroad was limited and restricted for the common citizen, if at all), and they got extra chances and support also in their studies and work. (But these latest two were true everywhere in the world.) Since then 23 years passed, a lot of things has changed. Today, I don't understand, how can the fact, being the citizen of a post-communist country, would help the sportsman getting a medal?

Emre Deliveli edeliveliAugust 20th, 2012 at 8:44 pm

Thanks for your comment. I should start by saying that I am am not a sports economist. But as I mentioned in the post, I read all the recent papers predicting the medal count in preparing for this column. & being formerly communist comes out relevant in almost all these studies.

As you note, more than two decades have passed, and we don't have DDR-women on steroids anymore:), so my answer is that the sports institutions created in communism days are still in place. But you have a Hungarian email address, and Hungary was very successful in London 2012, so I'd be more than happy to hear your thoughts as well…

sgiAugust 20th, 2012 at 8:48 pm

It is more probable to explain those success with tradition, the wide range respect of certain sports, and the "school". We had successful sprotsmen (and women) in swimming, waterpolo, kayak/canoe, etc., but I remember other sports were succesful earlier like male pentathlon, female gym, boxing, wrestling. These people came most often from the school of a famous trainer, who helped two or three generation, and when the "pope" has gone or retired, there were no more success in that certain sport. These great mentors all had a special ability (special eye) to filter the real talented youngs from the mass. In a sport, where the results can be measured in an objective way, like swimming, no doubt, that the best will be the winner. Hungary got more medals in such kind of sports, like kayaking, swimming. and just the smaller number of them based on points given by jury…

Emre Deliveli edeliveliAugust 20th, 2012 at 8:54 pm

Maybe some of those schools are still active, run by the younger of those great mentors or their students…. I had a very broad idea when I said institutions [it is one of those words economists just love:)], and so it certainly encompasses tradition and schools…

sgiAugust 20th, 2012 at 9:02 pm

Without the goal of insulting your (I mean Turkey) sportslife, I suggest you, take a look at your sportlife. Football, football, and football. Maybe some wrestling, maybe some basketball. In my opnion is, that the problem is how to find the talented youngs at very early age. USA, SU, China, Corea, etc. is better, because they have the method and experience in this matter. Hungarian swimmers like Gyurta, Egerszegi, or Krisztian Berki et.c started sports at 4. There is another grade, when in the elementary school, a good gym teacher have a good eye to filter the talents, and sends them to the appropriate place,to a sportsclub, recommending them to a trainer. This is the secret, I think. Hungary is a small country, but we often have a place in the table of medals amongst the top 20. But I doubt, it is the result of that were once a communist country.

Emre Deliveli edeliveliAugust 21st, 2012 at 5:46 am

I agree with every word you said, but what you are describing could as well be part of the ex-communist tradition…

As for insulting me, don't worry. I never get insulted by facts:)…

sgiAugust 21st, 2012 at 12:38 pm

Well, I am not a historician of sports, but in the first decade of the past century, sport was the hobby of the wealthy social classes. Only the football was the sport offering a chance for poorest kids. In the socialist era, of course, there were a huge competition amongst eastern block and western block, and governments tried to support – the first and second line sportclubs. There were a special elementary school (KSI- Central Sport School), which had a special education system, the most important was the physical training, the other school hours had secondary importance, I mean, they supported and tolerated the irregularity of sport competition events in studies. And kids had to get through on an entrance exam to attend the school, that meant a pre-selection, naturally. The others did the trainings in sportclubs, after (or before, like swimmers) school. There were an importance of whether young sportskid had a parent, with enough free time taking small kids into trainings, or not. Swimming, ice-skating, gymnastics, rsg, tennis were the most typical sports demanding a parent starting at age of 4-5, the others selected the kids later, after age of 8-9-10, typically. And mostly, the mother

sgiAugust 22nd, 2012 at 7:07 am

(some technical problem occured) I wanted to talk about the role of the family attitude to sports, but I changed my mind, I'd rather turn back to your answers and original topic. As a fact, this is true, that postt-communist countries were expected getting medals. But it is a mistake to suppose a causality connection. Our sport results started in the beginning of the past decade, all the other based on them. Namely, our first two medals got a certain Alfred Hajos in free style swimming, poor guy made the trainings on the Danube, but our first swimming pool based on his plans. Since then we continuously got medals in swimming. The most medals we got in fencing starting the serie after 1st WW. It was the sport of urban upper midlle class and soldiers (see the movie of Istvan Szabo: Taste of Sunshine). The first sport clubs were based in industrial districts of Budapest by simple workers, in connection with the spreading popularity of football, the sport of simple workers (khm…plebs…sorry) according to their moderate financial means. Later came the athletics, and the gym alredy needed more money, accordingly the lower middle class practiced it.

sgiAugust 22nd, 2012 at 7:21 am

Also we had good possibilities with Danube in other watersports, kayak and canoe sports emerged around small boat storing houses alongside the bank of Danube (still there is 4-5 more important and well defined point of it within Budapest. Plus other rivers and lakes had similar sport centres. The socialism just kept these sportclubs, mostly because of its feature, that the members were workers, it matched well into the ideology. (For the reason of their former successes, they melted in them the different small, independent fencing clubs, too). Soc. govt. supported sportclubs, it was a political matter to win over west this way, too. Probably there were structural similarities in the sportlife and orgs. of soc. countries, and true, that we had separate competitions and common training events amongst us, what made more active the sportlife. But that's all. I could write more arguments based on our society, but unfortunately there is no possibility here (limited characters.. 🙂

sgiAugust 22nd, 2012 at 7:33 am

And one more thing referring to that certain blog in HDN, in which I've read the opnion of a turkish journalist about female sportsmen: both men and women have to change the attitude appropriately… In my own family we all doing more different sports as a hobby (not only football), and there are very popular mass sport events during the whole year: swimming contest (gulf-swimming) on the Balaton, running contests, marathons, half-marathons in different cities, bike contests around the Balaton, etc. More thousand people nominated already for the next half-marathon hold in september 9, starting from Bp Citypark… Me (in the category of female 50+) and my younger son both attending…

sgiAugust 22nd, 2012 at 7:45 am

Ops, above I meant not past decade, but century, naturally! Or more exactly the end of the 1890's the decade of "Milennium" (1000th year of foundation of hungaran state), yet within the era of Monarchy…