Monday, August 04, 2008

Warning: Expect Major Medal Inequality in Beijing

According to these IRS data, the top 50% of U.S. taxpayers earned 87.3% of all income in 2006, and paid 96.89% of all income taxes.

According to these Olympic medal statistics from the 2006 Winter Olympics, the top 50% of the competing countries won 88% of the medals and 88% of the points (3 for gold, 2 for silver, 1 for bronze).

Warning: Expect more major "medal inequality" at the Summer Olympics this year.

Question: The results of income distribution conform very closely to the inequalities outlined above for Olympic medals. Why does the general public accept major inequality of outcomes in sporting events like the Olympics, but then object so strongly to an unequal distribution of income and favor attempts to redistribute income through a progressive income tax system?

Should we consider "medal redistribution" to reduce the inevitable significant "medal inequality" and achieve a more "fair" outcome in Beijing, with some kind of progressive "medal tax" - the more successful a country is at winning medals, the more medals they have to give up for redistribution? Just wonderin'.


At 8/04/2008 9:52 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fairness is subjective. Facts aren’t. I think if a country wins 97% of the events, the fact they have 87% of the entrants would be relevant information that should be reported. People can make up their own minds what that means to them.

At 8/04/2008 10:19 AM, Blogger juandos said...

"I think if a country wins 97% of the events, the fact they have 87% of the entrants would be relevant information"?!?!?!

What's the number count of countries participating?

How many does each country send (obviously not all countries send competitors to all competitions) to the summer games?

I don't watch the Olympics but if the footnote of the link is factual: 'The number of countries with medals is: 26; the average of medals per country is: 9.7
The percentage of medals for the best country is: 11.5
', I can't see how any ONE country could be in that position walt g...

What am I missing here walt g?

At 8/04/2008 10:49 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Hypothetically speaking, if you heard that China won 9 of the 10 available gold medals, would you want to know they were 8 of the 10 entrants? Although I am pretty sure Latvia, the country on the bottom, has a small population, I won't even get into any population issues.

I am not against income equality. In fact, I live it, and I’ve worked for it. It’s more of a full disclosure thing with me. Since I try to make my decisions based on information instead of emotion, I need all the details. Sometimes a lot is said by what is left unsaid.

At 8/04/2008 11:10 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Professor - poorly written question on your part - you shouldn't ask why the "general public" is thinking that income inequality isn't's mainly the far left and the press!

At 8/04/2008 11:37 AM, Blogger juandos said...

Well walt g, your comment: "Hypothetically speaking, if you heard that China won 9 of the 10 available gold medals, would you want to know they were 8 of the 10 entrants?" shows me what I don't know about the Olympic games...

Isn't there a limit on how many people can compete per event per country?

So say that in event X, China enters 10 people in the event as do say the US and a few other countries... Every other country enters what they can afford to or has the resources to do it...

So when China wins (or any other country that could've entered 10 peope) its due to the numbers of people they have to call on for that particular event?

O.K., I can see that...

At 8/04/2008 11:51 AM, Blogger bobble said...

"Why does the general public accept major inequality of outcomes in sporting events like the Olympics, but then object so strongly to an unequal distribution of income "

hmmm, maybe because we can't eat olympic medals, nor pay our mortgages with them?

plus, and this may come as a shock, but some of us don't give a flying freak about the olympics.

At 8/04/2008 11:55 AM, Blogger spencer said...

This is an example of the genuine issue of using countries or population to calculate changes.

For example, if you look at growth in living standards over the past decade by the number of countries going up and the number of countries going down you get a very different result than if you look at it by the number of people.

This is because India and China only count as two countries while the African basket cases count as a much larger number of countries even though their total population is only a fraction of the populations of China and India.

So my question is what percent of the total population of countries taking part in the Olympics do the 50% of the countries that won the bulk of the medals account for.

I suspect if you looked at the medal allocation in terms of population rather than countries you would find that the inequality disappears.

Of course our good host never uses bias stats.

At 8/04/2008 5:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The general public do not have a direct/personal stake* in the medal earning events. They can watch it or just walk away with no cost to them. That's how it doesn't seem to matter.

Participating in taxes and the economy are things that are largely unavoidable(i.e. you have to deal with taxes to evade them) by the general public.

While there are exceptions, one is more likely to be (only) participating in an economic contest.

* They're most likely to be watching. This also excludes the possibilities of cheating and/or gambling.

At 8/07/2008 8:14 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I still don't see how these are relevant comparisons.

Half the population of the U.S. accounts for 87.3% of income.

Half the population of the Olympic athletes account for ?% of medals and points?

Because that would be a relevant comparison. I am guessing it is roughly half, no? There is not an unequal distribution of medals.

If you want to go by total population, then the top 1% of the population would take home 100% of all Olympic medals. So what?

At 8/11/2008 11:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The primary difference is that there is no inheritance effect in distribution of medals as in distribution of wealth. Michael Phelps may be a freak of an athlete with extrodinary talent, those of highest merit taking the spoils as opposed to Paris Hilton who hardly has her wealth based on "merit" in any field.

Second, the medal tally could, with a complex regression analysis be weighted. For example, population is only one obvious factor ... if these were school sports and one school had a single class of 25 kids in an age group to take 3 spots in a running race, and another larger school competed with a year level of 250 students, surely you would expect the larger population base to win. The athlete who is fastest, however has a 9% chance of being in the smaller class, 91% of being in the bigger. USA has 250 million, Australia has 20 million.

That in turn needs to be adjusted for the fact that regardless of country size, you get 3 athletes per country in any given event regardless of talent ... therefore Australia will have more competition spots per capita at the olympics than the USA, and if there is some luck associated with winning for example the 10m air-rifle, Australia has more entries per capita. A straight division of medals per population does not cut it.

Then, events are not all equal. The most elite athletes in Men's soccer or basketball become extremely wealthy in their professional club competitions. As a result large population bases in Brazil taking part in the tourament of becoming a multi-millionaire soccer player as their one opportunity to break out of poverty. Similarly with mens basketball. Yet mens soccer or basketball only yields 1 medal each despite the resources drain in their sports market place, and the fact that 11 soccer players take to a field. Yet a single swimmer of exceptional ability a la Michael Phelps can take a yield of 8 medals. Uneven, and harldy a parity measure of sports abilities across nations.

Clearly if a country were to attempt to maximize medals, they would forgoe participation in Basketball or Soccer, and go after higher yielding sports. Yet individual elite athletes within a society would be rationally expected to pursue the sports with the highest personal reward.

Lastly, GDP per capita influences results. Not just with the increased leasure time to pursue sport, but also with the mechanisms for junior development, national systems of talent identification, training talent, the societies sports medicine, and sports science all affect to "buy" medals. You need to put the resources behind the right junior athlete, but you also simply need to have the resources to spend. Not all countries fund sport equally.

All in all, calculating parity in olympic medals is difficult. At the base of it, without the inheritance distortion on meritocricy that comes part and parcel with the unequal distribution of wealth, the fastest in the world on the day will still win the medal regardless. There is therefore not the same need for a redistribution tax.

At 8/21/2008 5:19 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Whether it is a relevant (or even fair) way to measure medal performance it might be interesting for you to see this widget. It calls itself "The Real Olympic Country Rank".

See it here:


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