U.S. vs. the world in sports and school

Why is the U.S. so good at athletics — look at the Olympic medal count — and so mediocre in education? Not so fast, answers Mike Petrilli on Flypaper. Sure, the U.S. and China win the most gold (and silver and bronze) medals. We’re also very big countries.  Looking at the per capita medal count (as of Aug. 10) tells a different story.

The U.S. ranks 40th in Olympic medals per capita on the chart, but “an impressive eighth in the world in reading” on PISA, Petrilli writes.

In raw numbers of high-scoring students, the U.S. is number one for math and reading, according to PISA. (Remember that China and India don’t participate.)

It’s good to be big, Petrilli writes.

The reason that the world’s best universities continue to be populated by so many Americans is that (1) most of those universities are here, and (2) we produce more top K-12 students than anybody else. As long as that’s the case, we will continue to lead the world economically and culturally.

But watch out for the Chinese.

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  1. You can’t just look at Olympic medals. The US might have the best 10 men and best 10 women basketball players but only get 2 medals total from basketball. Michael Phelps won a bunch of medals but is just one person. How many people playing football, baseball, basketball, soccer, or MMA chose not to compete in other sports? How many Americans were kept out of sports due to money (swimming and gymnastics are expensive) or grades?

  2. It should be noted that the US trains many Olympic athletes from other countries – track and field appears to be one of the big areas. TV commentators identified US colleges for many foreign competitors. (one of my kids knew a South African swimmer who competeted for a big-name US program and she said that was true of herRSA Olympic teammates) Maria Sharapova has lived and trained in this country since she was a little girl, but competes for Russia. It should also be noted that the Chinese state, like the old USSR and Romania, trains their athletes. I’m not saying it’s wrong, but it’s something we don’t do – and we don’t have the incentives that those countries have. Sport offers many families benefits that were otherwise reserved for elite Party members.

  3. Two unrelated thoughts:
    1. Compulsory schooling is a version of otherwise discredited “industrial policy”. Because measures of education system performance summarize measures of individual student performance and because individual student performance depends critically on local variables (the individual student’s interests and aptitudes and the variety of possible career paths a modern economy offers) that remote authorities cannot know in detail or manipulate with precision, the education industry is, in abstract, an unlikely candidate for State (government, generally) operation.

    2. Academic performance and athletic performance differ significantly in the rewards that attend second place and lower level performance. Economists would call athletic success a “positional good”. Gabby Douglas and Michael Phelps get the Wheaties box. Jake Dalton, among the best in the world, rejoins the rest of us, somewhere between the street and the executive suite. In each nation, demand for athletic performance (product endorsements, social invitations) falls steeply from #1. The market for celebrities (athletic heros, movie stars, and divas) differs enormously from the market for masons, copy editors, and engineers, where second-best is pretty good. Most of the people who don’t medal will join their age-mates on the assembly line or behind the teller’s window. NTTAWWT. Fortieth in the University of Illinois-Urbana EE graduating class is still a pretty good engineer, with bright employment prospects.

  4. Mark Roulo says:

    “Not so fast, answers Mike Petrilli on Flypaper. Sure, the U.S. and China win the most gold (and silver and bronze) medals. We’re also very big countries. Looking at the per capita medal count (as of Aug. 10) tells a different story.”


    It turns out that several attributes help win Olympic medals:
        (a) A larger population,
        (b) Being wealthier per-capita,
        (c) Being totalitarian
        (d) Being the host country

    Fitting a curve to a bunch (but not all) of the 2008 summer games countries/medals, it turns out that:
        (a) The square root of the population matters,
        (b) The square of the per-capita GDP matters,
        (c) Totalitarian is a 5-8x bonus
        (d) You get 10ish or so medals extra for hosting.

    I seriously doubt that this maps very well to *average* PISA scores. Or even total “High Achieving” PISA scores (though it might!).

    Further, the Olympic table has some typical small sample bias. For example, the “best” country, Grenada, just won its first Olympic medal ever. A good guess is that they won’t win one in 2016.

    The US is very roughly average when it comes to Olympic medals after you take into account population and wealth. But you expect smaller countries to do better (and worse) because it is easier to double a medal count when your expected medal count is 2 or 3. It is much harder to do this when your expected medal count is 100. The converse is also true … it is easier to underperform by a lot when your expected medal count is 2 or 3 … a bit of bad luck and you come home empty handed.

    But in the end there just isn’t much to do with the per-capita Olympic medal count compared to PISA average reading scores. You’ve go numbers in both measures, but the similarity ends about there.

  5. Medals per capita is misleadng. Let’s be logical here. It’s absurd Grenada is ahead of the USA. For starters, m/pcap discriminates against countries with larger populations like the USA or China. Next, there are a finite amount of medals to be won 607 to be exact; 302 gold. Finally, each federation sends a contingent of athletes. So, to me, a more appropriate figuure is to divide number of medals won into the delegation. Or number of medals won into the pool of medals. Using the USA as an example, it would be 104/539 or 104/607. You will find when you do this exercise for all nations, the USA does in fact dominate.

    I’m Canadian and on a m/pcap basis, Canada “outperforms” the USA but this is ridiculous. USA won 46 gold medals to Canada’s 1. Again, let’s be logical.

    The other thing I look at is, if we want to use a global measurement, 104/607 gives you 15%. The USA represents 4% of the world’s population so on this front it does well. However, it represents 26% of the world’s economy so the figure is not as great.

    We can rationalize all we want, the bottom line is the USA is in fact the top Olympic nation.

    Perhaps someone can take what I argue and turn it into a more effective and efficient formula. Suffice for me to give a big “no” to m/pcap.