Comparing Medals Tally at the Olympics

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:

Comparing medals

[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):

medals by 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.

7 Comments

  1. Slovenia has never been a Soviet province.

  2. Luka, oops! Thanks for pointing it out. Fixed now.

  3. I think the popularity of the Olympics and the sports contested there has alot to do with the success of those countries. For example, Australia has a long history in competitive swimming..thus the high medal count compared to their population. However, none of this is inevitiable..just look how well China has improved in the past 20 years. This is due in large part to their progress in diving and gymnastics. If India truly wants more medals, they simply need to put their mind to it and promote the sports in the Olympics.

    Personally, I think India has more important things to do like dealing with poverty, corruption, pollution and economic growth. The Olympic medals can come later. In the meantime, kick Pakistani A** in cricket!

  4. Dave, I agree on India having more important things to do. Not winning at the Olympics is our favorite gripe that resurfaces every four years and promptly forgotten once the flame is doused.

  5. Ahem…..where is New Zealand?

  6. Joan, actually New Zealand is not too far behind. Their medal tally by population is 1.19 (5 medals in 2004) and podium index is 5.0 (click on the link after the second graphic and place your cursor in one of those columns in the left-hand-side).

  7. This year, the Bahamas clearly win when you normalize by both population and GDP with Mongolia second. Once again, the Caribbean countries and Western Ex-Soviet Republics did well. You can see the full (final) results here.

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