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Gold medals for human development

Gold medals for human development

Bill Easterly recently published a short piece of research with a simple question: What determines Olympic medals? He finds that income per capita and total population, GDP, determines total number of medals won. He also drew some poignant lessons from the study:

(1) World Bank national development strategies in key emerging markets have failed miserably in the Olympics sector.

(2) a history of Communism may not have been so awesome for development and liberty, but it’s still amazing for Olympic medals.

(3) Islamist ideology is a mixed medal producer (Saudi Arabia no, Iran yes).

(4) if nothing else works, just run really fast.

Like any good Development Economist, Easterly only looks at GDP and total number of medals. He forgets a very important fact about the Olympics: only gold medals matter. The medal tally is not ranked on total number of medals. It is ranked on total number of gold medals. And, we know how American athletes feel about silver:

So, lets have a look at what determines Olympic gold medals (which are not really gold, and only contain 1.34% gold) and go beyond GDP to look at ‘Human Development‘. The first image is the medal tally according to gold medals. The second image is the Human Development Index (HDI) ranking. Only the top 24 countries are displayed.

The results find a weak correlation between ‘Human Development’ (GDP, life expectancy at birth, mean years of schooling, expected years of schooling) and the ability to win events that people only watch once every fours years. However, the results also support Easterly’s finding that running really fast works. Also, lifting really heavy things, shooting and being in or on water work as well.

Other not so important observations:

  • Only 10 countries in the top 24 HDI rankings can be found in the top 24 medal tally.
  • no.14 Iran ranks no.88 in the HDI; no.16 North Korea does not ranks due to insufficient data; no.17 Jamaica ranks no.79 in the HDI.
  • Only one country from the British Isles, Ireland, ranks in the top 24 for ‘human development’. The United Kingdom sits at no.28 in the HDI.
  • Countries currently affected by the Eurozone crisis, although not ranking too well in the medal tally, are still holding ground in the HDI: Italy, Spain, and Germany. This suggests that Italy and Spain should increase funding of its national sports and athletics programs, while cutting back on health and education.
  • In no way are these findings to be taken seriously.


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Brendan Rigby

Managing Director & Co-founder at WhyDev
Brendan is an education specialist and co-founder of WhyDev. He is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne’s Graduate School of Education exploring complementary basic education and the literacy practices of out-of-school children in northern Ghana. Formerly, he was an Education Officer with UNICEF Ghana, and Director of Venture Support with StartSomeGood. Brendan has also been an education consultant and trainer for Plan, UNICEF, ScopeGlobal and the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority. He is obsessed with tea, American football and karaoke.

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4 thoughts on “Gold medals for human development

  1. […] Rigby’s humorous post on WhyDev looks at what determines Olympic gold medals, and goes beyond GDP to look at ‘Human […]

  2. […] Por nëse përdor GDP për frymë ose indikator të tjerë zhvillimi ky korrelacion zhduket. […]

  3. […] Rigby’s humorous post on WhyDev looks at what determines Olympic gold medals, and goes beyond GDP to look at ‘Human […]

  4. It would be fun to link the Transparency Corruption Index to the medal statistics as it seems that quite a few relatively intransparent regimes are doing disproportionately well…

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