Which country truly does the best at the Olympics?

Graham Cooke 10 August 2016 NEWS

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 20:

Rank Country Population per medal Total medals
1 Grenada 110,694 1
2 Slovenia 165,284 12
3 Norway 173,590 30
4 Jamaica 245,851 12
5 Trinidad and Tobago 305,591 4
6 Bahamas 321,834 1
7 Latvia 331,118 6
8 New Zealand 341,415 13
9 Netherlands 385,180 44
10 Sweden 426,157 23
11 Austria 509,738 17
12 Belarus 532,761 18
13 Switzerland 541,455 15
14 Hungary 549,863 18
15 Australia 568,775 40
16 Lithuania 576,887 5
17 Czech Republic 586,302 18
18 Mongolia 598,582 5
19 Denmark 620,167 9
20 Estonia 632,710 2

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 20.

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.

Rank Country Population per medal Total medals “Normal” medals based on even distribution
1 Grenada 110,694 1 0.03
2 Slovenia 165,284 12 0.45
3 Norway 173,590 30 1.18
4 Jamaica 245,851 12 0.67
5 Trinidad and Tobago 305,591 4 0.28
6 Bahamas 321,834 1 0.07
7 Latvia 331,118 6 0.45
8 New Zealand 341,415 13 1.01
9 Netherlands 385,180 44 3.85
10 Sweden 426,157 23 2.23
11 Austria 509,738 17 1.97
12 Belarus 532,761 18 2.18
13 Switzerland 541,455 15 1.84
14 Hungary 549,863 18 2.25
15 Australia 568,775 40 5.17
16 Lithuania 576,887 5 0.65
17 Czech Republic 586,302 18 2.40
18 Mongolia 598,582 5 0.68
19 Denmark 620,167 9 1.27
20 Estonia 632,710 2 0.29
21 Croatia 637,835 7 1.01
22 Montenegro 647,073 1 0.15
23 Finland 684,615 8 1.24
24 Georgia 704,461 7 1.12
25 Cuba 735,429 15 2.50
26 Ireland 815,384 6 1.11
27 Canada 816,275 43 7.97
28 Great Britain 881,159 69 13.80
29 Azerbaijan 978,078 10 2.22
30 Armenia 1,018,794 3 0.69
31 Slovakia 1,089,005 5 1.24
32 Qatar 1,097,409 2 0.50
33 Cyprus 1,189,197 1 0.27
34 Russia 1,271,641 112 32.34
35 Germany 1,283,403 63 18.36
36 Kazakhstan 1,296,937 14 4.12
37 Bahrain 1,346,613 1 0.31
38 France 1,358,240 49 15.11
39 South Korea 1,364,311 36 11.15
40 Gabon 1,705,336 1 0.39
41 Italy 1,718,198 36 14.04
42 Moldova 1,773,424 2 0.81
43 Serbia 1,794,199 4 1.63
44 Puerto Rico 1,799,179 2 0.82
45 Ukraine 2,115,689 21 10.09
46 Botswana 2,182,719 1 0.50
47 Romania 2,407,372 9 4.92
48 Poland 2,410,137 16 8.76
49 United States 2,453,197 131 72.96
50 Japan 2,759,123 46 28.82
51 Kuwait 2,788,534 1 0.63
52 Spain 2,832,126 17 10.93
53 Singapore 2,837,236 2 1.29
54 Bulgaria 3,593,447 2 1.63
55 Tunisia 3,679,075 3 2.51
56 Belgium 3,774,658 3 2.57
57 North Korea 4,163,868 6 5.67
58 Kenya 4,175,027 11 10.43
59 Dominican Republic 5,239,378 2 2.38
60 Greece 5,387,822 2 2.45
61 Colombia 5,842,091 8 10.61
62 Iran 6,818,689 12 18.58
63 Hong Kong 7,141,106 1 1.62
64 Tajikistan 8,191,958 1 1.86
65 South Africa 8,945,927 6 12.19
66 Uzbekistan 9,733,314 3 6.63
67 Portugal 10,825,309 1 2.46
68 Argentina 10,857,972 4 9.86
69 Chinese Taipei 11,754,181 2 5.34
70 Brazil 12,015,283 17 46.37
71 China 14,097,788 97 310.47
72 Ethiopia 14,209,403 7 22.58
73 Guatemala 14,918,999 1 3.39
74 Malaysia 15,256,924 2 6.93
75 Thailand 16,994,101 4 15.43
76 Mexico 17,390,973 7 27.64
77 Turkey 19,853,567 4 18.03
78 Saudi Arabia 27,752,316 1 6.30
79 Venezuela 29,275,460 1 6.65
80 Afghanistan 32,564,342 1 7.39
81 Morocco 33,322,699 1 7.57
82 Uganda 37,101,745 1 8.42
83 Algeria 39,542,166 1 8.98
84 Egypt 44,243,698 2 20.09
85 Indonesia 127,996,837 2 58.12
86 India 208,615,931 6 284.18

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