Which country truly does the best at the Olympics?

Graham Cooke 10 August 2016

When population is taken into account, who are the real performers at the Olympic Games?

“It takes a whole village to raise a child”, they say, and it also takes a whole country to raise an Olympian. For any athlete to progress from childhood amateurism to Olympic platform, a whole support system needs to be in place from the start. You need training facilities, coaches, sports scientists and talent spotters. Some athletes also receive a boost to their chances by being born into a country with a suitable climate for local training, a well-funded infrastructure for their chosen sport, or indeed a massive government-sponsored doping program.

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We’re used to seeing the same big hitters at the top of the Olympics medal table: China, Russia and the United States. However these are also countries with huge populations. Is it really remarkable that China won 88 medals at London 2012 given it has a population in excess of 1.3 billion?

To find out, we compiled the total number of medals won across the two most recent Olympic events (the London 2012 Summer Olympics and the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics), and combined this with the most recent (2015) population data for each country from the CIA World Factbook and other sources. Here’s the top twenty:

RankCountryPopulation per medalTotal medals
1Grenada110,6941
2Slovenia165,28412
3Norway173,59030
4Jamaica245,85112
5Trinidad and Tobago305,5914
6Bahamas321,8341
7Latvia331,1186
8New Zealand341,41513
9Netherlands385,18044
10Sweden426,15723
11Austria509,73817
12Belarus532,76118
13Switzerland541,45515
14Hungary549,86318
15Australia568,77540
16Lithuania576,8875
17Czech Republic586,30218
18Mongolia598,5825
19Denmark620,1679
20Estonia632,7102

You’ll notice a few things. Firstly, Grenada comes out on top. With a tiny population of just over 100,000 people, it did well to produce one gold-medal Olympian in the form of Kirani James who won the men's 400 metres. Countries with tiny populations generally don’t win medals as they don’t have a lot of bedrock sports infrastructure, and they don’t make up a significant portion of the top twenty.

Secondly, the above table contains a lot of countries you probably didn’t think were top Olympic performers, like Slovenia (2nd), which won four medals at the London Olympics and eight at Sochi, equating to one medal for every 165,284 people. Or Belarus (12th), with 18 medals and one for every 532,761.

Thirdly, the big-hitters are absent. There’s no sign of Russia, the United States or China. With all those potential athletes, the huge populations of these countries push them well down the table, sitting at 34th, 49th and 71st place respectively. The biggest underperformer globally across the two games is India, which only managed to win six medals despite being home to 1.25 billion, resulting in a population of 208 million per medal.

Anzacs will be glad to know that Australia and New Zealand both make the top 20, with NZ the significant leader (341,415 vs 568,775 people per medal).

However there are a limited number of medals available, so if you have a massive population, is it even possible to win enough medals to get a decent ranking in this table? To see what the population per medal “normal” could be, we divided the total number of medals over both competitions by the population of all countries in the analysis. The result was 4.4 million people per medal.

If you look at it this way, the top 58 countries on our list all over-perform. This includes the United States and Russia (but not China). Possibly surprising under-performers include the host nation Brazil as well as South Africa, Argentina and Greece (where it all began). On this metric, India should have won 47 medals and Grenada just 0.03. If India performed as well as Grenada it would theoretically win 1,885 medals, which certainly puts Kirani James’ 400m gold into perspective. So it does take a whole country to raise an Olympian, but it turns out it only needs to be big enough to fill the MCG.

Graham Cooke's Insights Blog examines issues affecting the Australian consumer. It appears regularly on finder.com.au.

RankCountryPopulation per medalTotal medals“Normal” medals based on even distribution
1Grenada110,69410.03
2Slovenia165,284120.45
3Norway173,590301.18
4Jamaica245,851120.67
5Trinidad and Tobago305,59140.28
6Bahamas321,83410.07
7Latvia331,11860.45
8New Zealand341,415131.01
9Netherlands385,180443.85
10Sweden426,157232.23
11Austria509,738171.97
12Belarus532,761182.18
13Switzerland541,455151.84
14Hungary549,863182.25
15Australia568,775405.17
16Lithuania576,88750.65
17Czech Republic586,302182.40
18Mongolia598,58250.68
19Denmark620,16791.27
20Estonia632,71020.29
21Croatia637,83571.01
22Montenegro647,07310.15
23Finland684,61581.24
24Georgia704,46171.12
25Cuba735,429152.50
26Ireland815,38461.11
27Canada816,275437.97
28Great Britain881,1596913.80
29Azerbaijan978,078102.22
30Armenia1,018,79430.69
31Slovakia1,089,00551.24
32Qatar1,097,40920.50
33Cyprus1,189,19710.27
34Russia1,271,64111232.34
35Germany1,283,4036318.36
36Kazakhstan1,296,937144.12
37Bahrain1,346,61310.31
38France1,358,2404915.11
39South Korea1,364,3113611.15
40Gabon1,705,33610.39
41Italy1,718,1983614.04
42Moldova1,773,42420.81
43Serbia1,794,19941.63
44Puerto Rico1,799,17920.82
45Ukraine2,115,6892110.09
46Botswana2,182,71910.50
47Romania2,407,37294.92
48Poland2,410,137168.76
49United States2,453,19713172.96
50Japan2,759,1234628.82
51Kuwait2,788,53410.63
52Spain2,832,1261710.93
53Singapore2,837,23621.29
54Bulgaria3,593,44721.63
55Tunisia3,679,07532.51
56Belgium3,774,65832.57
57North Korea4,163,86865.67
58Kenya4,175,0271110.43
59Dominican Republic5,239,37822.38
60Greece5,387,82222.45
61Colombia5,842,091810.61
62Iran6,818,6891218.58
63Hong Kong7,141,10611.62
64Tajikistan8,191,95811.86
65South Africa8,945,927612.19
66Uzbekistan9,733,31436.63
67Portugal10,825,30912.46
68Argentina10,857,97249.86
69Chinese Taipei11,754,18125.34
70Brazil12,015,2831746.37
71China14,097,78897310.47
72Ethiopia14,209,403722.58
73Guatemala14,918,99913.39
74Malaysia15,256,92426.93
75Thailand16,994,101415.43
76Mexico17,390,973727.64
77Turkey19,853,567418.03
78Saudi Arabia27,752,31616.30
79Venezuela29,275,46016.65
80Afghanistan32,564,34217.39
81Morocco33,322,69917.57
82Uganda37,101,74518.42
83Algeria39,542,16618.98
84Egypt44,243,698220.09
85Indonesia127,996,837258.12
86India208,615,9316284.18

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