Searching for Normalizing Metrics in the Olympics Medal Count

August 17, 2016 Ben Blaney

It’s the Olympics, that quadrennial spectacle that enthralls most of the world for its duration. There are many things to admire about the event: the participants, the fans, or even the media coverage.

I was looking at the medals table, and it got me thinking about two things: performance and normalizing metrics. Let me explain.

At time of writing, the USA is in first place in the medal race, with Great Britain in second place and China in third.

The USA, by most measures, is an affluent country, and one can make an assumption that national performance in sport often correlates with a country’s ability to financially support its athletes. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the numbers.

The medal / GDP table looked like this one week into the games:

Country Olympic Score GDP
USA 70 18.5B (1st)
GB 39 2.8B (5th)
China 46 11.4B (2nd)
Well hold on a minute. Japan is ranked third in word GDP and is only ranked eighth in medals so far. Perhaps there’s something else going on here. Maybe we should be looking at per capita GDP.
Country Olympic Score GDP/person
USA 70 $55,800 (19th in world)
GB 39 $41,200 (39th)
China 46 $14,100 (113th)

The USA has a large population, which has obvious performance advantages. The wider the talent pool, the more likely you are to find world-class athletes. Well, not necessarily. We know that if that were strictly the case, the USA would be in third place after China and India, followed by Indonesia and host Brazil.

The point here is that in certain situations, certain components “outperform.” Tiny Jamaica — with a small population and average per capita GDP — has given the world Usain Bolt, who has cleaned up the 100m for three successive Olympics.

We can find this dynamic in pricing too. Certain salespeople seem to outperform their peers in discounting behavior. Certain products outperform in terms of their “stickiness” with customers. And some customers outperform by various other measurable behaviors.

The Olympic analogy above helps explain why companies of all shapes and sizes have challenges finding an appropriate normalizing metric. At PROS, we have leveraged years of price optimization experience to build an extensive library of KPIs. These KPIs help our newest customers get up to speed quickly and help accelerate time to value.

Our experience has also helped us recognize that sometimes a KPI can be expressed as a change over time. We know that Great Britain is currently outperforming its nominal GDP, its per capita GDP, and its population. We could spend forever building out models to explain that situation. But maybe it’s more instructive to benchmark against history. At the Atlanta Games in 1996, Great Britain placed 36th in the rankings, with only one gold medal. A lot has changed in just five Olympic Games.

For a little light reading on this topic — and a healthy amount of statistical wrangling — check out this article.

For now, I must sign off. I need to check the TV schedules to see what events are happening today.

About the Author

Ben Blaney

Ben Blaney is a Senior Strategic Consultant at PROS, helping organizations select and deploy its cloud-based software. He previously served as director of Commercial Excellence for ESAB, a $2B division of Colfax Corporation, where he was responsible for strategy, execution and measurement of all aspects of commercial excellence. Blaney also led pricing strategy for a $2B division of GE; has served as a business consultant at Vendavo; and led pricing for a $1.5B business unit of ITT Corporation, where he worked for eight years in roles of increasing responsibility and seniority. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Exeter. Blaney holds the PRINCE2, Project Management Professional (PMP), Certified Pricing Professional (CPP), and Lean Six Sigma Black Belt certifications.

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