Saturday, August 25, 2012

Olympic Statistics: 3 Tips on How to Use Data Effectively

Most media outlets in the U.S. celebrated the fact that the U.S. won the medal count. But does medal count alone reflect a country's achievements?

Grenada followed by  Jamaica and the Bahamas earned the most medals per-capita. In a recent post, I reviewed that large countries have a greater pool of people which provides an advantage over less populous countries. [1] Adjusting the medal count by population levels the playing field for less populous countries like Grenada.

Two recent articles made a similar point. One made a good case, while the other used faulty logic. This post will review the approaches and conclude with 3 tips to use statistics effectively.

1. Faulty Logic

In a New Yorker article [2], John Cassidy wrote:
"'Why Is America So Awesome at the Olympics?' asked a headline at Slate. The main reason is that the United States is a very big, very rich country, and it should come out on top. On a per-capita basis, other rich nations did equally well, perhaps better.
If you combine the five biggest European countries (France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, and Spain) they have practically the same number of inhabitants as the U.S: about three hundred and fifteen million people. Taken together, the European countries won a hundred and eighty-eight medals—almost twice the U.S. total—and sixty-two golds."

The first part is correct where he introduced per-capita.

The second part --- where Cassidy combines the five biggest European countries --- is faulty. It is true that the combined populations of those 5 European countries and the U.S. are about the same. But those 5 European countries entered 5 times as many athletes as the U.S. giving them many more opportunities to win medals. To be analgous, the U.S. would have entered 5 teams for each event: California, Texas, New York, Florida and All Other U.S. states would have made this an equivalent match.

There was no mathematical reason to combine the 5 European countries, since the per-capita analysis already achieves the goal of comparing countries by population. By combining countries, without considering the extra events, an error is introduced.

2. Getting the Math Right

Over at the New York Times, they prepared an interactive chart [3] that reviews per-capita medal count by country. The accompanying article [4] provided background information on the per-capita analysis:
"The pipsqueaks [small nations] are finding mathematical ways to make their triumphs seem more impressive. During an interview last week, a public relations representative from Slovenia pulled out a chart titled “Olympic Glory in Proportion.” It divided the country’s two medals by its total population — two million — and put Slovenia at No. 1 in the category of medals per capita. 
“I’m a little worried about Jamaica,” the representative said at the time. 
He should have been worried about Grenada. On Monday, Kirani James won the gold medal in the men’s 400-meter dash, vaulting his country, population 110,000, to the top of the medals-per-capita chart."
The U.S. plummets to 27th place when reviewing medal count per capita. Ouch! 
But the U.S. and other populous nations are on par. The 5 European countries that the New Yorker referenced are 
  • France - Tied for 24th
  • Germany - Tied for 24th
  • Great Britain - Tied for 10th
  • Italy - Tied for 28th
  • Spain - Tied for 30th
 Great Britain has been doing well in the recent games and  enjoyed the traditional Olympic host bump by moving from 14th in 2008 to 10th place in 2012. 

3 Tips on How to Use Stats to Illuminate 

In our age of number crunching, we need to be careful when creating or using statistics:
  • Look at a phenomenon from different perspectives to get a richer explanation such as total and per-capita medal count.
  • Remember to check if the comparison makes sense and avoid the apples and oranges problem such as the New Yorker's comparison of Europe's most populous 5 countries to the U.S.
  • If being fed statistics, try to understand why a particular number was selected. The U.S. news media focused on medal counts to pump up national pride, just as Slovenia was doing with the per-capita perspective. 
Following these tips, our statistics will be as powerful as Grenada's Kirani James when running the 400-meter dash. 


1. My Olympic article reviews China's medal strategy to increase its medal count. Read more on this blog >>

2. New Yorker Article on medal counts. The New Yorker article was drawing a conclusion that government support of athletes in GB had improved its medal standing over the years. "In fact," stated Cassidy, "the entire London Games was a testament to the productive role that governments can play." Read more at the New Yorker >>

3. New York Times Interactive Medal Count chart. The chart also counts medals by total number and various weightings for gold, silver and bronze. Read more at the New York Times >> 
Per-capita alone does not tell the whole story. Smaller countries could put all their energies in a few events. Jamaica, for example, is focused on track which has be rewarded when measured per-capita.

No matter how you look at it, poor India is under-performing in both count (38th) and per-capita (79th).

4. New York Times article on medal counts. Read more at the New York Times >> 

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