The Cost of Competing – or – Why Olympic Weightlifting is More Hardcore Than You Think

12 Aug 2012

One of my favorite parts of the Olympics is all the hypothetical pub-challenges I exchange with my friends.

“If you had 8 years to train and were executed if you didn’t medal, which event would you train for?”

My Answer: Sailing

“Which should be the first sport to go? And replaced with what?”

Answer: Ping-Pong, Tug-of-War

“If you had to sleep with a random Olympian in a certain sport, which sport would you pick?”

Pragmatic Answer: Field Hockey or Soccer; Gross Answer: Gymnastics; Fun Answer: Boxing

I like to arm myself with numbers when I come to a bar fight (go ahead, judge me), so I thought I’d try to settle the whole Is Equestrian Elitist? debate.

For all summer medalists since 1988, here’s how much money the average person from the medal winning countries earn:

Sport
Average Country Income
Equestrian $38,302
Triathlon $37,189
Cycling $33,635
Sailing $33,557
Softball $33,375
Rowing $33,367
Archery $31,500
Handball $30,900
Aquatics $30,277
Tennis $30,203
Table Tennis $29,933
Canoe / Kayak $28,794
Field Hockey $27,844
Volleyball $27,200
Judo $26,418
Shooting $26,325
Fencing $25,615
Basketball $25,445
Modern Pentathlon $24,606
Taekwondo $24,385
Track and Field $24,058
Gymnastics $23,234
Badminton $23,058
Wrestling $21,734
Football $20,936
Boxing $20,346
Weightlifting $17,675

In my mind, these seem incredibly intuitive across the board. The more gear, luxuries, and training space required, the better richer athletes and countries do.

But it doesn’t stop there. Even within disciplines, the numbers are fairly unsurprising. Look at Track and Field:

Track Event
Athlete Income
Pole Vault $30,910
110m Hurdles $30,583
Javelin Throw $30,350
20km Race Walk $29,857
3000m $28,850
Decathlon $27,311
100m Hurdles $27,264
1500m $26,823
50km Walk $26,175
4x400m Relay $26,089
Shot Put $26,008
4x100m Relay $25,992
20km Walk $25,600
Heptathlon $25,400
100m $25,280
High Jump $25,213
Triple Jump $23,825
800m $23,412
Hammer Throw $22,731
Discus Throw $22,086
200m $21,482
3000m Steeplechase $21,167
Marathon $21,081
Long Jump $21,023
400m $20,867
400m Hurdles $19,686
10000m Walk $18,800
10000m $16,655
5000m $14,860

There are a few outliers but if something requires stuff or special training, athletes from richer countries tend to do better.

So does this mean you can you compare one sport to another? One might look at these numbers and correlate race stereotypes with how difficult a sport is; I’d argue some countries do better because of the economics more than the body mechanics and genes. And in general, I think the lower the average medalist income, the more badass the medal is. Lower incomes mean less barriers mean bigger competitor pools.

Summary: If you’re starting from scratch and want a medal, don’t go into weightlifting. 10 of the bottom 17 spots are weightlifting events.

The process:

  • To be clear, the averages come from macro-level country averages, not individual people.
  • The income is not actually income but GDP per capita based on purchasing power parity (PPP) (source: CIA/World Bank, 2007-2011). Since accurate disposable income numbers aren’t readily available for all countries, I like this estimate for guessing how much buying power each potential athlete has to buy javelins, bikes, horses, and doping kits.
  • The income is a mean, not a median, in the hopes uneven distribution does play a factor.
  • Retired sports and retired countries were ignored.

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