Eagle-eyed economist eyes Turkey’s Olympic success

Eagle-eyed economist eyes Turkey’s Olympic success

Loyal readers will know that economists love to poke their noses into more mundane matters than monetary policy or the current account, whether it be Crimean-Congo Fever or abortion policy.

They also seem undeterred by their failure to predict the global crisis, or even more recently the European football champion. Their latest foray into forecasting has been the Olympic medal count: Several academics and research houses built statistical models to try to predict how many medals each country would win in London.

The ingredients of such models are quite intuitive. For one thing, you’d expect bigger economies to take home more medals, but it could also be that richer countries have more resources to devote to athletics. So GDP and GDP per capita would be two obvious candidates.

But you would not expect Nauru, the least populous country represented in the Olympics, to win as many medals as China. For one thing, the island-nation with a population of roughly 10,000 was represented by two athletes, compared to 370 from China. So including population makes sense as well.

Past performance matters, and there is a host-country advantage, as Britain’s success in London, as well as China’s four years ago in Beijing, would confirm. It also makes a difference whether a country is, or ever was, communist. I am sure you could come up with even more appealing explanatory variables, but basically these models tell you how many medals you’d expect a country to win based on that country’s historical performance and determining factors.

I decided to use this framework to evaluate Turkey’s performance in the Olympics. Before I go on, I should note that this methodology ignores many complications: For one thing, not all medals are equal, but even if you adjusted for the color of the medal, it doesn’t make sense that Michael Phelps got four golds and two silvers, whereas Kobe and friends had to share one gold.

Anyway, the Financial Times provided forecast medals for each country from four different models. On average, Turkey won 3.6 medals less than predicted, making it the 11th least successful country by deviation from the expected medal count. Australia tops the list with 6.8, followed by Cuba at 5.8.

However, the fact that the country was represented with a record number of 114 athletes gives me hope for the future, even though the world’s 18th economy, also incidentally the 18th most populous country, was at number 29 in the participation rankings.

I’d rather worry about the government’s approach. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has reportedly asked for talented athletes to be recruited from Turkic republics to participate in the Rio 2016 games, while the government is concentrating its efforts on building stadiums in line with its bid for the 2020 Olympics.

But having the Housing Administration build great facilities will not be sufficient. Unfortunately, this approach reminds me of the education reform, where the government is assuming that handing out tablets to students, without increasing teacher quality, will jumpstart Turkey in PISA rankings.

You can have the best hardware, but with buggy software, your computer will crash all the time.