Measuring Success at the Winter Olympics

Stephen Cobert's SI Cover

Stephen Cobert's SI Cover

With the 2010 Winter Olympics scheduled to open in Vancouver this week, the Games are in the news. In Canada, which hosts the Olympics this year, embattled Prime Minister Stephen Harper is hoping for an “Olympics bounce” to boost his sagging popularity. The broadcasting network NBC, which paid $820 million for the rights to cover the Games, is hoping to limit its losses to $200 million. And Stephen Colbert has been making waves with his sponsorship of the U.S. speed skating team, landing himself on the cover of Sports Illustrated in the process.

With the athletes descending on Vancouver in search of gold medals, national pride is often at stake. But the question of how to compare the relative performance of countries remains. Should we use total medal count? Or should only gold medals count? Should we factor in the population of the country? What about the size of its economy? Playing with the data produces fundamentally different results—an important lesson for students of global politics!

So without further a due, here are the top Winter Olympic performers (sort of):

Top Winter Olympic Performers by Total Medal Count

  1. Russia/USSR (761 medals)
  2. United States (544)
  3. Germany (533)
  4. Canada (496)
  5. Norway (428)
  6. Sweden (393)
  7. Finland (389)
  8. Switzerland (289)
  9. Austria (249)
  10. Czech Republic and Slovakia (226)

But what if we just look at gold medals? After all, that represents the pinnacle of Olympic performance.

Top Winter Olympic Performers by Gold Medal Count

  1. Russia/USSR  (388 gold medals)
  2. Canada (203)
  3. United States (156)
  4. Germany (136)
  5. Norway (134)
  6. Sweden (119)
  7. Switzerland (82)
  8. Finland (73)
  9. Austria (71)
  10. Italy (67)

So far, no real changes. Russia remains on top, the US and Canada switch places, Italy nudges the Czech Republic and Slovakia out of the top 10. But the bulk of the countries in the top ten remain the same.

But why should large and small countries be counted in the same way. Shouldn’t we expect a country with a large population (like the United Sates) to outperform smaller countries (like New Zealand), given that the United States has so much larger a pool of talent to draw upon to field its Olympic team? To get a sense of this, consider population per medal. How many people does it take to earn a medal?

Top Winter Olympic Performers by Population per Medal (2008)

  1. Liechtenstein (3,955 people per medal)
  2. Norway (11,350)
  3. Finland (13,767)
  4. Sweden (23,757)
  5. Canada (68,540)
  6. Austria (33,626)
  7. Switzerland (26,918)
  8. Czech Republic and Slovakia (70,506)
  9. Russia/USSR (186,501)
  10. The Netherlands (199,870)

Using this measure, we start to see some real changes. Russia falls from first to ninth, while the United States drops from second to 21st.  Liechtenstein (a country with a total population of about 35,000 people), rockets from 22nd place to first.

But we could also consider the countries’ relative wealth. Shouldn’t relatively wealthier countries, which can afford to subsidize their athlete’s training programs through corporate sponsorships or the construction of advanced training facilities, perform at a higher level? One way to think about this is the size of the economy relative to the number of medals. In other words, how much GDP does it take a country to get a medal? In other words, which countries are most efficient in their pursuit of Olympic medals?

Top Winter Olympic Performers by Total Medals Per $ of GDP (2008 Nominal)

  1. Liechtenstein ($554.78 GDP per medal)
  2. Finland ($698.89)
  3. Norway ($1,055.68
  4. Sweden ($1,218.73)
  5. Czech Republic and Slovakia ($1,379.46)
  6. Austria ($1,665.98)
  7. Switzerland ($1,731.00)
  8. Russia/USSR ($2,203.14)
  9. Canada ($3,023.29)
  10. Estonia ($3,872.00)

Here we see some interesting shifts as well. Liechtenstein again moves up dramatically, while the United States, with the world’s largest economy, falls to 25th, earning one medal for every $26.5 million of GDP. Now that’s some fun with data!


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