Canada's gold rush anomaly

'Olympic Nostradamus' didn't anticipate all that gold, and plans to tweak his model.

Canada’s Olympic performance was thrilling, storybook – and largely predictable.

That’s right: no reason to get all excited. In winning 26 medals, Canada punched almost exactly at its socio-economic weight. And that should have given it the world-topping medal haul – just as the Canadian Olympic Committee predicted – had two other countries not punctured holes in the best-known and, till now, highly reliable medal-forecasting model.

Daniel Johnson, a Moose Jaw — born economist who’s been called the Olympic Nostradamus for the 94% accuracy of his medal predictions over the past five Games, thinks he blew it this time. Sure, he was off by just one medal for Canada’s overall results, and came close for Norway, China and the Netherlands. But the U.S. and German performances were way off his charts. What’s more, “Canada’s gold rush was completely unanticipated by the model.” This year, his accuracy was down to 87% for medal totals and 81% for golds, and just 67% in ranking the top 12 nations.

The forecasts derive from purely non-athletic data: population size, income per capita, climate, political structure. He grants host countries three extra medals because most invest in programs like Own the Podium to look good on home soil. However, he doesn’t account for such targeted funding overall, as the data aren’t widely available. And this is what skewed the German and American results, he figures. Both countries opened the taps for their Olympic athletes, and Germany offers other benefits, such as state-sponsored employment. “The U.S was a tiger, a giant by historical standards,” he says, amassing 42% more medals than forecast. “That one is scary off-model. And it means something dramaticchanged.” Johnson also speculates that well-targeted investment made the difference in Canada’s golden performance. The model accounts for a dedicated Olympic fund, but “how you spend those dollars, our model has nothing to say about that.”

A professor of innovation at Colorado College, Johnson was lured into Olympics research by a Norwegian dignitary’s comment during the Lillehammer games suggesting it was poor form for the host country to win so many medals. “They had in mind how many was appropriate,” Johnson recalls. “So could we come to a scientific measure of what’s appropriate based on a country’s resources?” It seems we could. Johnson’s gone so far as to peg the “cost” of an Olympic medal: US$1,700 in GDP per capita, with a gold at US$5,000.

Johnson plans to tinker with his model before the 2012 Summer Games, but insists that it provides a useful gauge of countries’ returns on their Olympic investments. When medals deviate from benchmarks, there’s usually a reason: a new approach to sports management, or structural issues (such as team rebuilding), or simply more available cash. The model also calibrates the, um, appropriate sense of achievement: If Poland won 26 medals at the Olympics, champagne for everyone! If Canada wins 26, “well, that’s about right.”