How do Olympic Medals Affect Longevity?

Abstract:

This paper investigates how status affects health by comparing mortality between Gold medalists in Olympic Track and Field and other finalists. Due to the nature of Olympic competition, analyzing performance on a single day provides a way to cut through potential endogeneity between status and health. I first document that an athlete’s longevity is affected by whether he wins or loses and then detail mechanisms driving the results. Winning on a team confers a survival advantage, with evidence that higher mortality among losers may be due to poor performance relative to one’s teammates. However, winning an individual event is associated with an earlier death. By analyzing the best performances of each athlete before the Olympics, I demonstrate that an athlete’s performance relative to his expectations partly explains the earlier death of winners in individual events: on average, Olympic Gold medalists expected to win, but losers exceeded their expectations. Conversely, athletes considered “favorites” but who fail to win die earlier than other athletes who also lost. My results are robust to estimating a range of parametric and semi-parametric survival models that make different assumptions about unobserved heterogeneity. My central estimates imply lifespan differentials of a year or more between winners and losers. The findings point to the importance of expectations, relative performance, surprise, and disappointment in affecting health, which are not highlighted by standard models of health capital, but are consistent with reference-dependent utility. I also discuss potential implications for employment contracts in terms of a trade-off between ex post health and ex ante incentives for productivity.

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