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And the winner is …? Predicting gold medals at the Olympics

The US is expected to dine out on its successes at London 2012. US Army

And the winner is …? Predicting gold medals at the Olympics

The US is expected to dine out on its successes at London 2012. US Army

A small number of countries competing at the Olympic Games will win a large proportion of the medals available. There are 80 countries competing in London who have yet to win a single medal in the Olympics. Given this record, is it possible to predict who will win what?

Competitors from 204 countries will take part in 36 sports at the Games of the XXX Olympiad.

Gold, silver and bronze medals will be awarded in 302 events. These have been designed for the London Olympics by the British artist [David Watkins](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Watkins_(designer) and have been made at the Royal Mint in Llantrisant in South Wales.

The latest predictions

Many of the leading medal-winning nations have developed systems to predict Olympic medal success. In Australia, for example, the Australian Olympic Committee announced its preliminary estimates for medals in London in February 2011 based on data from 2010 world championships. It predicted Australia will make it to the top five.

One of the more recent predictions of medal success has come from the United Kingdom. UK Sport has estimated a range from 48 medals through to a host-nation-boosted total of 70 medals. In 2008, the host nation China won 100 medals (51 gold, 21 silver, 28 bronze).

The last two years has seen a growth in data shared with the public about medal predictions. This growth had been informed in part by Infostrada Sports. Since March 2011, USA Today has been publishing medal predictions and projections based on Infostrada data. The Herald Sun in Australia has been publishing its Virtual Medal Predictor since March this year.

Data mining

The availability of detailed information about performance in international competition has helped refine the predictions made about medal success. From these data, for example, there has been stable trend data about the total number of medals to be won by leading nations.

The podium’s nearly ready, but who’ll be standing here? diamond geezer/Flickr

Going into the Games, the prediction is the top ten medal-winning nations will be:

  1. China

  2. USA

  3. Russia

  4. Great Britain

  5. Germany

  6. Australia

  7. France

  8. Japan

  9. Italy

  10. South Korea

Other medal predictions rely on demographic, economic and political factors. PriceWaterhouseCoopers has used population, average income levels, whether the country was previously part of the former Soviet/communist bloc (including Cuba and China), and whether the country is the host nation.

These data suggest that the USA will lead the medal table from China (113 medals to 87 medals) and that Australia will win one more medal than Germany (42 to 41). The same ten countries feature in both data sets.

Earlier this year, Daniel Johnson produced his list of medal-winning nations. It’s based on an economic model to which is added a legacy effect of hosting an Olympic Games. Dan’s model predicts that the top ten medal-winning nations will be:

  1. USA (99 medals, 34 gold)

  2. Russia (82, 25)

  3. China (67, 33)

  4. Germany (60, 19)

  5. Great Britain (45, 20)

  6. Australia (38, 8)

  7. France (37, 11)

  8. Italy (31, 10)

  9. Japan (31, 9)

  10. Hungary (19, 7)

A gold standard for predictions?

By some counts, Jamaica will win the medal tally. Singapore 2010 Youth Olympic Games

The leading Olympic medal-winning nations make a significant investment in preparations for the Games. They have developed information-rich models to predict their own medal success and to monitor the performance of their rivals.

This Olympic cycle from Beijing to London has seen a growing amount of data in the public domain. It raises a fascinating question: “is there a gold standard for medal predictions and projections?”

The medal table available at the London Games will be ranked according to gold medals. It will be an absolute measure of success.

I will be monitoring a relative index that acknowledges medal success per capita. The top-ten nations in this table, according to the New Zealand computer scientist Craig Nevill-Manning are:

  1. Jamaica

  2. Netherland Antilles

  3. Bahamas

  4. Iceland

  5. Slovenia

  6. Norway

  7. Australia

  8. Estonia

  9. Mongolia

  10. New Zealand

In this index, the USA languishes in 46th place and China in 66th.

Australia is the only nation to appear in the top ten of the absolute and relative measure of Olympic success.