So, Who Won the Olympics?

So, Who Won the Olympics?

This question pops up every two years at the conclusion of the Games (either Winter or Summer). The simple answer is whichever nation got the most medals. Usually, as was the case this time, it’s the United States. This achievement is crowed by people who seem to believe that success in an international sporting competition somehow validates a nation’s greatness. Or that individual athletic achievement only matters when your name is Michael Phelps or Simone Biles.

Let’s be fair. The United States is one of the most populous nations in the world. We have a truly vast pool of talent to draw on. And our large, vibrant, and robust economy means that when talent does appear, we can offer the best in training, technology, and equipment to help those aspiring athletes reach greatness. Well, at least in the sports we care about….

Gee, if only there were some way to take population size and economic factors into account. I wonder what the Medals Table would look like then…

Craig Neville-Manning has done the math, and presents it – not just for Rio, but for ALL the Summer Olympics – at his website:

What insights can we garner from his results?

Here are the Top Ten in Medals per Capita:

Rank Nation #of medals Population Population per Medal
1 Grenada 1 106,825 106,825
2 Bahamas 2 388,019 194,009
3 Jamaica 11 2,725,941 247,812
4 New Zealand 18 4,595,700 255,316
5 Denmark 15 5,676,002 378,400
6 Croatia 10 4,224,404 422,440
7 Slovenia 4 2,063,768 515,942
8 Georgia 7 3679000 525,571
9 Azerbaijan 18 9,651,349 536,186
10 Hungary 15 9,844,686 656,312

Wait, Grenada? What are they doing there? It’s the fault of Kirani James. One of the best in the world at the 800 meter distance, he scored a silver medal this time around (he really broke the curve by earning a gold in London). It goes to show that athletic excellence can come from anywhere.

By the way, the US is way down at #43, right between Russia and Spain.

Surely, though, a gold is better than a silver, and both are better than a bronze. What if you weighted the medals: 4 points for a Gold, 2 for a Silver, and 1 for a Bronze?

The Top 4 are the same. Croatia and Denmark switch positions. Fiji, thanks to their rugby team, jumps up into #7, pushing Slovenia down a spot. Bahrain, with one gold and one silver, moves up to #9; Hungary stays at #10. The US moves up to #36, between South Korea and Russia.

What about economic factors? If you compare the weighted medals to a country’s Gross Domestic Product, here are the Top Ten:

1    Grenada
2    Jamaica
3    Kenya
4    Fiji
5    Armenia
6    Georgia
7    Burundi
8    North Korea
9    Bahamas
10    Tajikistan

Again, you see the good fortune of Grenada of having a truly outstanding athlete as their native son. And Fiji getting to play their national sport for the first time. Jamaica manages to produce the best sprinters (Usain Bolt isn’t unique) just as Kenya seems to grow long-distance runners, so that may explain their ranking on this list.

The US is down at #64, between Algeria and Brazil.

What if you could combine the two? One way would be to look at medals and team size. This year, the United States sent 554 athletes – more than any other nation by far. Team size is a rough indication of a nation’s talent pool (more athletic talent to fill your team) and economy (you can afford to train and send more athletes). It is very rough; there are all manner of rules and regulations from the IOC saying how many athletes you can send, and how many can compete in a given event. And the host nation gets a good number of the rules “relaxed” as a sort of Thank You.

Call it “Weighted Medal Efficiency”, if you will. Which countries were the best at getting medals?

Rank Nation Team Size Weighted Medals per 100 athletes
1 Tajikistan 7 57
2 United States 554 53
3 Kosovo 8 50
4 Jordan 8 50
5 Azerbaijan 56 50
6 Jamaica 68 47
7 Great Britain 366 46
8 North Korea 35 45
9 Kenya 89 41
10 China 413 40

Well, the US did pretty well here. One could say that the United States is the best at producing Olympic Glory, if that’s your thing.

But each and every medal winner – be it gold, silver, or bronze – is worthy of honor and respect. Regardless of what anthem is played when they win.

By the way, these Games saw nine nations have their anthems played at the Olympics for the first time ever. I’ll give them their due next time….

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