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Expert: 37 golds for US and 27 for China at Athens
Updated: 2004-08-17 14:49

Don't bet the rent on those forecasts of a triple-digit U.S. medal haul in the Summer Games. An Ivy League number-cruncher, it turns out, may be the Olympics' true wizard of odds.

And he's got a different view of how it will turn out.

After analyzing statistics, history and the fuzzy yet unmistakable effects of the host country advantage, Andrew Bernard, a professor of international economics at Dartmouth, predicts Americans will win 93 medals, including 37 golds.

He's been right before. In 2000, Bernard and research partner Meghan Busse had forecast the United States would win 97 medals, including 39 golds -- exactly what American athletes ended up with in Sydney.

``It's just a little bit of common sense and some statistics,'' Bernard said Monday in a telephone interview from his office in Hanover, N.H. ``We'll have to wait and see if we have another gold medal performance or if we'll be knocked out of contention.''

His prediction for the U.S. team, which he forecasts will outperform Russia, China, Germany and Australia, falls short of the U.S. Olympic Committee's glittery goal of 100. Media guesses have gone even higher; Sports Illustrated magazine, for instance, projected that Americans will win 111 medals.

But conventional forecasts are based on assessments of individual athletes like swimmer Michael Phelps or sprinter Maurice Green. Bernard and Busse, who teaches economics at the University of California-Berkeley, focused instead on wealth, population and other indicators to project medal totals for 34 countries.

Over the last four decades, four key factors -- population, per-capita income, past performance and the host country effect -- have driven national Olympic medal hauls, they wrote in a recent study published in the Review of Economics and Statistics.

A combination of big population and high per-capita income is potent, explaining why the United States and Germany win a lot of medals, Bernard said.

Size matters, he said, ``because it gives a country more chances to have an athlete with the extraordinary natural ability that's necessary to become an Olympic champion.'' Income matters because wealthier nations have the resources to develop medal contenders.

So why does China always win more medals than France? Because its huge population more than offsets its low per-capita income, the researchers say.

Their formula also considers the home-court advantage, which is why Bernard predicts that Greece will win 27 medals -- more than doubling its haul of 13 in Sydney. Australia ended the 2000 Games with 58 medals, well over the 41 it won at Atlanta in 1996.

By the time Athens holds its closing ceremony, Bernard expects Russia to have won 83 medals, including 29 golds; China, 57 with 27 golds; Germany, 55 with 13 golds; and Australia, 54 with 14 golds.

The U.S. swim team, which does its own assessment based on recent performance, doesn't take such forecasts seriously. ``We look at who's strong at what,'' spokeswoman Tara Smith-Pollard said.

Four years ago, when Bernard and Busse hatched the project over lunch -- raising serious eyebrows -- they didn't just nail the U.S. medal count. They also perfectly predicted France's eventual total, came within one medal for 11 other countries, and were only three medals off for another eight nations.

They fumbled badly, though, on their forecasts for Britain, China and Russia. The Russians won 88 medals at Sydney, far more than the 59 predicted, and China and Britain each took home 10 more medals than projected.

There are exceptions to the formula.

Japan, for example, wins far fewer medals than France or Italy, even though it has twice the population and a higher per-capita income. So far in Athens, Ukraine has won two golds -- twice as many as predicted. And the forecasts, by definition, don't factor in doping scandals or injuries that knock athletes out of contention.

``There's a margin of error, but we don't tell you what it is because that's less fun,'' Bernard said.

He predicts that Olympic riches will be more widely distributed than ever before in Athens. That's because the dominance of the traditional powerhouse nations has steadily eroded since the 1960 Rome Games, when the top 10 countries won 78 percent of the medals. In Sydney, they won 55 percent.

Poorer countries, meanwhile, are improving their standards of living -- and with that, their shot at a medal.

Bernard is watching the games nightly on television, but he doesn't panic when Phelps is beaten in the pool.

``I don't worry,'' he said. ``When the U.S. team fails to win glory in something they're completely dominant in, they'll pick up a medal in something else.''





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