Predicting success: The big medal winners spend a lot on weapons

The games of the XXX Olympiad are complete. Londoners can return to their natural state of dourness. NBC can go back to offering other programming on a maddening tape delay, and pundits can argue whether it makes sense to spend $14 billion to host the games or not.

With all 302 medal events completed, it is a good time to ask what defines a country likely to do well at the games.

We can quickly rule out several factors. You probably don't want to rank poorly on Foreign Policy's Failed States Index if you want to excel at the games, though Afghanistan and Uganda did manage medals (and a Somali-born member of the British track team, Mo Farah, won gold medals in the 5,000- and 10,000-meter races).

Similarly, having a clean government does not seem to define sporting success as much as development experts might hope it would. The three countries ranked as the least corrupt in the world by Transparency International — New Zealand, Denmark and Finland — finished 19th, 28th and 52nd in the medal count, respectively. Those are very respectable but not overwhelming performances given relative population sizes. (Grenada, with one medal and a population of just over 100,000, was by far the best performer per capita at the games.)

The top three medal winners in the games were hardly paragons of virtue, at least according to Transparency, with the United States ranked 24th, China at 75th and Russia at a dismal 143rd (tied with Nigeria) on the annual Corruption Perceptions Index.

But given that the Olympics were plagued, as they all too often are, by doping allegations linked to everyone from Chinese swimmers to Jamaican sprinters, no one should be surprised that clean government is not the Olympic way. After all, these were games that had a cheating scandal in badminton, of all things. The Olympics have long been an exercise in institutional and individual corner-cutting in the name of national greatness. The East Germans shredded record books for years with a swim team sufficiently doped up that it could have been declared a superfund site.

Based on data from the CIA's World Factbook, per capita income alone isn't much of a predictor of Olympic greatness either. Indeed, if pure wealth were a likely indicator, the podiums would have been filled with both representatives from such delightful tax havens like the Cayman Islands and Switzerland and athletes from oil-rich states like Brunei, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait. Even if one takes out these obvious outliers and notes that wealthy countries clearly fare better than poor ones, there hardly seems to be a straight line between relative national wealth and overall success.

Goldman Sachs, in a cheerleading piece of analysis before the London Games, argued, “gold does go where the growth environment is superior.” This is the same kind of savvy analysis that put Goldman Sachs at the center of the global financial meltdown and repeated scandals. Sachs' analysis conveniently starts in 1996, so that it can omit the fact that the Soviet Union was consistently one of the highest medal winners even as the country veered into social and economic collapse.

A number-crunching study of the winners of the 2004 Athens Games reached the spectacularly unsurprising conclusion that “Olympic team size was the best single predictors of Olympic medals.” This hardly seems illuminating, and the study ultimately concluded that winning Olympic medals depended on a complicated and nonlinear mix of population size, overall wealth, growth rate, unemployment and spending on sports.

Without our resorting to complicated regression analysis, one factor does seem to line up exceedingly well with Olympic success: overall military spending. Let's put our top 10 winners at the Olympics up against our top military spenders:

Top Medal Winners

1. United States

2. China

3. Russia

4. Britain

5. Germany

6. Japan

7. Australia

8. France

9. South Korea

10. Italy

Top Military Spenders

1. United States

2. China

3. Russia

4. Britain

5. France

6. Japan

7. India

8. Saudi Arabia

9. Germany

10. Brazil

The lists are not an exact match, but the overlap is both powerful and undeniable. (India is an obvious exception to the rule of thumb, and there is already a small cottage industry of speculation as to why India just isn't very good at the Olympics.)

The correlation between military spending and Olympic glory also makes sense, in that it suggests success for a country with certain imperial ambition — militarily, culturally and through a desire to demonstrate physical prowess on sport's largest stage. One can only imagine that editorial writers in New Delhi are already sharpening their pens to argue that India will never be taken seriously as a global power until its medal count goes up.

And with defense hawks increasingly desperate to avoid the impact of sequestration, it probably won't be long before they argue that America's proud Olympic heroes need a huge military budget to stay at the top of their game.

Norris is executive director of the Sustainable Security program at the Center for American Progress.