An Old Boys' Club No More: Pluralism in Participation and Performance at the Olympic Games

Marcus Noland (PIIE) and Kevin Stahler (PIIE)
Working Paper
May 2015

Decades ago, the Summer Olympic Games were an old boys' club; by many measures the Winter Games still are. Now, however, this old boys' club must compete with talented athletes from almost every country on earth, large and small, rich and poor, many of whom have found their comparative sporting niches. Looking forward, the image of the incumbent champion—rich, European, and male—will become ever more antiquated. This paper models the historical determinants of success at the Olympic Games in the context of their growing pluralism, evolving from their aristocratic and largely European male roots to the more gender-inclusive and geographically diverse showcase of athletic talent that is seen today. A wide set of socioeconomic variables is correlated with winning medals, particularly with respect to the Summer Games and women's events. Host advantage is particularly acute in judged contests such as gymnastics. However, there is evidence that the influence of correlates such as country size, per capita income, and membership in the communist bloc is declining over time as competition becomes increasingly diverse. These effects are less evident in the Winter Games, events that require significant capital investments, and judged contests.

Data disclosure: The data underlying this analysis are available for download as Stata files [zip]. The zip file contains three files: statistical output for replicating figures, charts, and statistical models (, and Stata format datasets containing information on the Summer Olympic Games for 1960–2012 (wp15-9_ summer-olypmics-dataset_1960-2012) and the Winter Olympic Games between 1960–2010 (wp15-9_winter-olypmics-dataset_1960-2010.dta).

This working paper has been updated and published in the Journal of Sports Economics.

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Marcus Noland Senior Research Staff
Kevin Stahler Former Research Staff