Science Forecasts Who's Taking Home the Bling in Rio

Predictive algorithms show the United States coming in first at the 2016 Olympics.

Getty Images / Julian Finney

Sure, going to the Olympics is an honor in and of itself. But why athletes train hours on end for thankless, grueling months is for the chance to stand atop the gold medal podium, tackily gigantic gold bling swinging from their necks.

In a recently published paper “Olympic medals: Does the past predict the future?” researchers Julia Bredtmann, Carsten Crede, and Sebastian Otten have attempted to figure out exactly which countries are going home with the gold.

As in 2012, four countries are set to come out on top: the U.S., China, Russia, and the UK. Specifically, it’s predicted that the U.S. will win 98 medals, China will come out with 84, Russia will receive 77, and the UK will walk away with 62. The researchers also expect that Brazil and Japan will be the countries making the biggest strides in medal wins in Rio. While Japan won 38 medals in 2012, they’re expected to score 46 golds. Comparatively, Brazil won 17 medals at the last Summer Games; this year, the host nation is expected to walk away with 33.

Using data from the Olympic Games held between 1996 and 2008, they applied a “naive model” and a “sophisticated model” to the data to see if their medal predictions for 2012 match what actually happened. The naive model primarily looked at the persistence in performance of the countries over past competitions; the only explanatory variable was a linear time trend while still taking into account that the number of medals usually increases over the years because there is typically also an increase in events.

The sophisticated model took the naive model one step further by factoring in socioeconomic variables. These included whether the country was the host of the Olympics, was the upcoming host, and how large the country’s population was. The researchers also factored in the country’s wealth; wealthy countries have a population that can dedicate more time to leisure activities sports and invest in an infrastructure for athletes to succeed as professionals. Finally, they calculated whether women were equally like to participate, and train for, the same number of sporting events as men.

While the naive model predicted how many medals a country won relatively well, the sophisticated model was still more accurate. The difference between the predicted amount of medals and the actual medal count was 93 — a difference that largely came from the fact that Brazil underperformed at the 2012 games, interrupting the theory that the host of the next Olympics would shine four years prior. This year, the researchers predict that the investment that Japan has begun to put in its athletes prior to its own 2020 hosting will pay off.

These 2016 medal predictions will likely imitate their 2012 results — not entirely accurate, but not far off either. This isn’t to take away from the excitement of the games, but rather, could add to it — half the fun is seeing what’s predicted become a total upset once the games actually win. While you may want to see your country walk away with the gold, it’s more fun to see the little guy succeed.

“Supporters of ‘underdog’ nations need not give up hope entirely,” the researchers write. “Yes, past success is a good predictor of future success in the Olympic Games, and the bigger, better-off countries are almost guaranteed to do well given the socio-economic advantages they enjoy, but it would be remembered that a certain level of unpredictability remains in any sporting competition.”