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  1. Wealth
February 22, 2018

The Winter Games is about the wealth of nationals — not nations

By Alec Marsh

The wealth of a country usually correlates with its success at the Olympics, but it doesn’t in the winter, writes Alec Marsh

Want to know who the richest and happiest people in the world are? Look no further than the medals board of the Winter Games in Pyeongchang.

For in the same way that the medals table of the summer Olympic Games is typically dominated by the richest nations of the world — so the USA, China, Germany, Japan and Britain — then the snow-kissed variant of the Games is a pretty reliable indicators of the wealth of nationals living in those countries.

Take the current leader at the top of the board in Pyeongchang — Norway, which has 33 medals including 13 golds. It also happens to be the country with the highest Gross National Income (GNI), that is, Gross Domestic Product per capita, in the world — running just under $83k for every man, woman and child. Conversely at the summer Games, Norway fares badly — coming 74th in Rio with a just four medals. Norway’s economy, though, is around 30th biggest in the world.

The US, meanwhile, which came first at Rio (as well as in London and second in Beijing) is running in fourth in the snows and ice of South Korean despite all its might of manpower and money.

Now let’s take an example closer to home: Britain. The UK is currently 16th on the medals’ board in South Korea. That turns out to be precisely the same as Britain’s position in the worldwide GNI leader-board, with wealth per head running at around $43k.

If you’re feeling spooked by the coincidence of Norway’s and Britain’s matching positions, then get ready for another — Sweden also turns out to occupy the same spot on the medals table at Pyeongchang as it does in the global rankings of countries by levels of individual wealth. They’re in seventh. Not to scruffy for a country with just 10 million people, albeit it’s double that of Norway.

Of course, the rule is not quite set in stone : the Germans, as ever, are strong competitors and are in second place at Pyeonchang, with 12 golds just behind Norway — yet they’re 14th in the GNI list. The Canadians, meanwhile, third at the Winter Games, are 15th in the GNI lists. But they do have a lot of snow and a relatively large population in comparison to many other nations in the top ten.

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Because overwhelmingly, if you look at the rest of the top flight, they’re small nations with high degrees of individual wealth: the Dutch, 11th richest in the world, are in fifth place, the Austrians, 12th richest, are in eighth and the Swiss, second richest, are in tenth place. At Rio these nations came 11th, 78th and 24th respectively — which is rather more in line with their combined population of 33 million, so just over half that of Britain’s.

As well as an apparent connection between individual rather than simply national wealth, there is also a correlation with happiness and success at the Winter Games because the Norwegians don’t just have the world’s highest GNI, they’ve also topped the UN’s World’s Happiness Report index in 2017, too. That was up three places on the 2016. The Swiss, meanwhile, are fourth happiest, while the Dutch are in sixth. The Canadians, third in Pyeongchang are seventh. (The UK is 19th in the latest report.)

So there you have it; to succeed in the bobsleigh, alpine skiing, curling or figure skating you want to come from a small, highly wealthy state, ideally but not exclusively one with lots of mountains and snow — where people smile.

But correlation is not proof of causation.  The Danes, for instance, are consistently judged among the happiest people on earth, and rather more importantly in this matter, are also among the very richest, but they’re in 26th  in Pyeongchang — joint last with no medals to show.

In this, at least — like the success of the Norwegians — they are consistent: the Danes have secured just one medal in the last 14 Winter Games in which they have competed, which proves what we all know, that correlation is no proof of causation. What most of us do know however is that doing just about anything at 3,000 metres is expensive so it’s no surprise that countries with the richest people tend to do best.

Alec Marsh is editor of Spear’s

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