Winning Olympic medals has been all the rage in recent times as more and more nations have managed to win medals. Of course, thanks to global realignment and de-colonization, it helps to have more nations with almost 205 participating in the Beijing 2008 Olympics. The top nations in the medal count has remained largely constant with United States, Russia (and former USSR), Germany (former East & West), Australia, Italy, and China (since 1984). After blanking out in Barcelona 1992, India has managed to win at least one medal in subsequent Olympics and even won an individual gold in Beijing. But how exactly do other countries fare given the variance in population size, geographic size, and resources available? Considering that the U.S. is a big-sized economy and the richest country in the world, does it give it an ‘unfair’ advantage in winning medals?
Given that more people you have, the more likely you are to win medals how would the tally look if you weight the medals tally by population:
[source] Only Australia manages to retain its spot in the top ten with Bahamas faring exceedingly well (more than 6 medals per million population). Erstwhile Soviet provinces like Estonia,
Slovenia, Belarus, and Latvia wriggle into the top ten as well showing the expansion of opportunities for athletes in those countries or simply indicative of the immense talent pool that the former Soviet Union used so well to win medals by the bucket load. If India won medals at the ability of Belarus, we would have gotten nearly 150 medals at Athens :)
But let us not simply consider number of potential athletes but put it in context of the country’s wealth (GDP):
[source] Belarus, one of the top ten in the previous table manages to significantly improve its standing (Ethopia is the highest with a podium index of 87.5). The ex-Soviet states and other countries from Eastern Europe figure in the top again indicating the immense talent pool and ability to win medals in spite of relative less wealth in their countries. However, if those athletes train in developed countries like the U.S., then this method of comparison might not be entirely accurate because the athletes simply represent the countries and do not live or train there (e.g. Christy Coventry from Zimbabwe). The podium index for the U.S. is 0.9 and that of China is 3.7. Where does India stand you ask? Well, the podium index for India was 0.0001.
Slice it whichever way, India doesn’t fare well at all. After all, winning just one medal per Olympics is not going to help especially for a country with 1.1 billion people and a GDP of nearly 5 trillion. And these analysis additionally assume that a gold medal is on par with a bronze which we know is not the case. The commentator during the opening ceremony of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games remarked at India’s contingent size and medal tally for previous three Olympics compared to China since we have comparable population. And it didn’t make for easy listening.
How do we win more? Well, that’s something that is rehashed at the start of every Olympics and forgotten at the end of each event although reading Rediff comment boards can give you an insight into why we do not. Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolutions blames “lack of government subsidies, low social mobility, nutrition problems, the relative lack of TV to inspire the young ‘uns…and bad roads.” Interestingly, he also mentions the high frequency of success for “non-democratic, authoritarian governments that feel a greater need to prove themselves on the international stage and to their people at home.” Rings true of China and Cuba and was very much true of the Soviet Union and East Germany. I say, we rather have a democracy than more Olympic medals if that is indeed a choice.
Update: If you are here for the 2008 medals tally, I’ve written it up here on basis of medals won as well as normalized by population and GDP.