Tag Archives: per capita

Measuring ‘Success’ at the Olympics

With the Olympic Games officially closed, the final medal counts are in. The United States and China both performed well, garnering 110 and 100 total medals respectively.  But is total medal count the only measure of Olympic success?  Of course not.  The purists among us (and the International Olympic Committee itself) would argue that participating in the Games is its own reward, medal or not.  Setting this position aside, we can still measure success in several different ways, yielding very different results.

The top 10 overall medal winners this year were:

  1. United States (110 total medals)
  2. China (100 medals)
  3. Russia (72)
  4. Great Britain (47)
  5. Australia (46)
  6. Germany (41)
  7. France (40)
  8. South Korea (31)
  9. Italy (28)
  10. Ukraine (27)

Gold Medal Count.  By this count, it’s perfection or nothing at all. In gold medal count, China runs away with the total, winning 51 golds. The United States places second with 36, and Russia remains in third with 23.  By this measure, Japan and the Netherlands overperform, shifting up 3 and 6 places respectively, while France underperforms, losing 3 places.

  1. China (51 golds, +1 place from overall standings)
  2. United States (36 golds, -1 place from overall)
  3. Russia (23 golds, no change from overall standings)
  4. Great Britain (19 golds, no change from overall standings)
  5. Germany (16 golds, +1 place from overall)
  6. Australia (14 golds, -1 place from overall standings)
  7. South Korea (13 golds, +1 place from overall)
  8. Japan (9 golds, +3 places from overall standings)
  9. Italy (8 golds, no change from overall standings)
  10. Three countries (France, Ukraine, and the Netherlands) tied with 7 gold medals each)

Population per Medal. Countries with larger populations can draw upon a wider pool of talent to field Olympic athletes.  Consequently, we might expect them to perform better than countries with smaller populations.  Calculating the number of people for each medal a country won (population per medal) gives us a fundamentally different medal count.  Biggest winners by this count: Iceland, which goes up 63 places in standing, and the Bahamas, which goes up 59.  The biggest declines are seen by China (-66 places) and the United States (-44 places).

  1. Bahamas (165,500 people/medal, +59 places from overall standing)
  2. Jamaica (267,727 people/medal, +18 places from overall)
  3. Iceland (316,252 people/medal, +63 places from overall)
  4. Slovenia (405,800 people/medal, +31 places from overall)
  5. Australia (465,500 people/medal, no change from overall)
  6. Cuba (469,500 people/medal, +6 places from overall)
  7. New Zealand (474,933 people/medal, +17 places from overall)
  8. Armenia (500,333 people/medal, +25 places from overall)
  9. Belarus (510,000 people/medal, +4 places from overall)
  10. Mongolia (657,250 people/medal, +38 places from overall)

And where do our top overall performers come in?

   26. Great Britain (1,234,043 people/medal, -22 places from overall standing)
   32. South Korea (1,555,613 people/medal, -24 places from overall standing)
   33. France (1,611,829 people/medal, -26 places from overall standing)
   34. Ukraine (1,705,900 people/medal, -24 places from overall standing)
   38. Russia (1,970,697 people/medal, -35 places from overall standing)
  39. Germany (2,005,312 people/medal, -22 places from overall standing)
  40. Italy (2,129,260 people/medal, -31 places from overall standing)
  45. United States (2,771,664 people/medal, -44 places from overall standing)
  68. China (13,255,630 people/medal, -66 places from overall standing)

Total Medals by GDP: As countries become more wealthy, they have more resources to spend on sporting facilities, training athletes, and so on.  Consequently, we’d expect relatively wealthier countries to perform better than relatively poor countries.  How do the number stack up?  And what happens to the top 10 countries from our overall medal count?  The biggest increases in standing are seen by countries like Kyrgyzstan (+59), Tajikistan (+50), and Mongolia (+45).  The biggest declines are in the standings of the United States (-74), Australia (-69), and Germany (-58).

  1. North Korea ($370 GDP/medal, +20 places from overall standings)
  2. Jamaica ($810 GDP/medal, +18 places from overall)
  3. Mongola ($964 GDP/medal, +45 places from overall)
  4. Armenia ($1,545 GDP/medal, +29 places from overall)
  5. Georgia ($1,592 GDP/medal, +25 places from overall)
  6. Kyrgyzstan ($1,744 GDP/medal, +59 places from overall)
  7. Tajikistan ($1,850 GDP/medal, +50 places from overall)
  8. Cuba ($1,879 GDP/medal, +4 places from overall)
  9. Belarus ($2,038 GDP/medal, +4 places from overall)
  10. Kenya ($2,107 GDP/medal, +8 places from overall)

And our top overall performers?

   18. Ukraine ($5,204 GDP/medal, -8 places from overall standing)
   35. Russia ($17,861 GDP/medal, -32 places from overall)
   42. South Korea ($31,674 GDP/medal, -34 places from overall)
   44. China ($54,686 GDP/medal, -42 places from overall)
   55. Great Britain ($59,000 GDP/medal, -51 places from overall)
   57. France ($62,875 GDP/medal, -50 places from overall)
   61. Italy ($73,857 GDP/medal, -52 places from overall)
   64. Germany ($79,488 GDP/medal, -58 places from overall)
   74. Australia ($122,233 GDP/medal, -69 places from overall)
   75. United States ($127,900 GDP/medal, -74 places from overall)

And last but not least, total medals by GDP per capita.  By this measure, Egypt fares very well (+81 places), as does North Korea (+31) and Uzbekistan (+29).  The biggest declines are seen in Italy (-32) and Great Britain (-30).   Our top performers by this measure:

  1. North Korea ($16 GDP per capta per medal, +31 from overall standings)
  2. China ($25  GDP per capta per medal, no change from overall)
  3. Egypt ($30 GDP per capta per medal, +81 from overall)
  4. Ethiopia ($56 GDP per capta per medal, +24 from overall)
  5. Kenya ($113 GDP per capta per medal, +13 from overall)
  6. Ukraine ($123 GDP per capta per medal, +4 from overall)
  7. Uzbekistan ($126 GDP per capta per medal, +29 from overall)
  8. Russia ($167 GDP per capta per medal, -5 from overall)
  9. Cuba ($210 GDP per capta per medal, +3 from overall)
  10. Belarus ($214 GDP per capta per medal, +3 from overall)

And our top performers (apart from Russia and China, included above):

21. United States ($411 GDP per capta per medal, -20 from overall)
26. South Korea ($657 GDP per capta per medal, -18 from overall)
29. Australia ($904 GDP per capta per medal, -24 from overall)
31. Germany ($967 GDP per capta per medal, -25 from overall)
32. France ($975 GDP per capta per medal, -25 from overall)
34. Great Britain ($1,017 GDP per capta per medal, -30 from overall)
41. Italy ($1,239 GDP per capta per medal, -32from overall)

So what do these data tell us about international relations and the Olympics?  About economic development and sport?  About any host of other topics?  And which is the best (or most accurate, or most fair) way to calculate Olympic standings?  I’ll leave that for you to ponder.  But for now, consider the following fun facts:

1.  Economist Daniel Johnson at Colorado College created a simple model to forecast Olympic success.  His formula incorporated five variables (GDP per capita, total population, political structure (democratic, authoritarian, military or communist), climate (the number of frost days) and home-nation bias) to project success.  His success rate was good (95-96% correlation)

2. African countries won a total of 40 medals, representing the continent’s best performance at the Olympics ever.  For three countries (Mauritius’ bronze in bantamweight boxing, Sudan’s silver in the men’s 800 meters, and Togo’s bronze in men’s single kayak) won their first ever Oympic medals.  Unforatunately many of the athletes were based overseas.

3. China’s Project 119 demonstrates an increased state commitment to sport—a way of demonstrating to the rest of the world China’s continued rise.  The project represents a continuation of the state commitment to sport common in communist governments, still reflected in the performance of post-communist transition countries (like Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan).

4. Michael Phelps dramatic success placed him in a league of his own.  If he were a country, he would have tied for ninth place in gold medal count, ahead of countries like France, Netherlands, Spain, Canada, Argentina, Switzerland, Brazil and Mexico.

The data used here are taken from Symworld.com, which provides comprhenesive statistics for all Olympic medal winners.