I enjoy watching the Winter Olympics, especially sitting in my little log cabin with thick snow-drifts outside, a warm wood stove, and hot cocoa. It is entertaining, with all the drama, joy, disappointment, mishaps, unfair conditions, generosity, and suspicions of doping. It all belongs to the Olympics, and it is the reason why we (some of us) find it so entertaining.

It is also a great opportunity to notice a few things about myself.

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How do you accurately predict Olympic medals? Not by looking at the athletes.

Daniel Johnson makes remarkably accurate Olympic medal predictions. But he doesn’t look at individual athletes or their events. The Colorado College economics professor considers just a handful of economic variables to come up with his prognostications.

The result: Over the past five Olympics, from the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney through the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, Johnson’s model demonstrated 94% accuracy between predicted and actual national medal counts. For gold medal wins, the correlation is 87%.

His forecast model predicts a country’s Olympic performance using per-capita income (the economic output per person), the nation’s population, its political structure, its climate and the home-field advantage for hosting the Games or living nearby. “It’s just pure economics,” Johnson says. “I know nothing about the athletes. And even if I did, I didn’t include it.”
Forbes, see also Daniel Johnson’s own website

Which countries tend to do best in the Winter Olympics? The ones with large populations, cold winters, and wealth. Nothing surprising there.

And yet, the strength of these connections and the accuracy of Johnson’s predictions is impressive. And it is perhaps surprising that this accuracy is achieved free from any data on the athletes.

This hints at a revolution still in its infancy, and one with with great promise: Uncover surprising, far from intuitive and yet important connections, using statistics, vasts amount of date, and modest computer power.

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Doing it for appearances

I have gone to the Olympic track & field trails a couple of evenings and it was fun to experience the atmosphere there. 

It also brought up a couple of (mildly attached to) stories for inquiry. 

One is how the big money interests seems to trump anything else, such as free speech. Visitors are not allowed to bring in banners and signs, and no citizen groups are allowed to have a booth, so that leaves only corporate signs, banners and booths with the exception of the military promo and recruiting area. The organizers have set up a few small “free speech zones” away from the event, at locations very few will happen upon. This makes the event itself seem somewhat sterile and corporate, and less interesting. 

The other is the usual security game they are playing, with a long list of things that are illegal to bring into the event, searches of any bags visitors have, and body scans with wands and patting down. It may seem impressive at first. But noticing how low the fence around the area is, and how easy it would be for anyone to pass something over or under it to someone on the inside, it becomes a little comical.

So in both cases, there is a game of doing it – at least partly – for appearances. There are a few free speech zones few ever sees. And a thorough security check that has no impact if someone really wanted to bring in something illegal. 

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