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Feb. 23 2010 - 5:05 pm | 407 views | 1 recommendation | 2 comments

The Olympic Medal (Re)Count

Have you been keeping an eye on the Vancouver Winter Olympics medal tally?  Has it crossed your mind that simply counting medals might not be the best measure of a nation’s Olympic success or failure?  Have you longed for a new way to compare -  oh – let’s say, former Soviet state Latvia’s Olympic prowess versus that of East Asian “tiger”  South Korea?

Inspired in part by listening to friends complain about Olympic rankings – friends who don’t hail from a relatively wealthy country with a 300 million plus population that’s currently topping the medal charts  — I’ve taken another look at the Olympic medal count.

The logic of those folks, hailing from elsewhere, is that the “winner” of the medal count should be the country with the highest number of medals and the smallest population – proving that it has the most skilled athletes amongst the same sized pool of people. Or the “winner” is the nation with the highest number of medals and the lowest Gross Domestic Product per capita, proving that it is innate talent -  and not resources — that make the athlete.

So let’s look at how  Gross Domestic Product per capita and population play into the Olympic games.

First, there is the straightforward medal count – courtesy of the New York Times, (as of Tuesday morning, February 23, 2010.)

RANKING Country Gold Silver Bronze Total
1 United States 7 8 10 25
2 Germany 7 9 5 21
3 Norway 6 3 5 14
4 Russia 2 3 6 11
5 Canada 5 4 1 10
6 South Korea 4 4 1 9
7 Austria 3 3 3 9
8 France 2 2 4 8
9 Switzerland 5 0 2 7
10 Sweden 3 2 2 7
11 China 3 1 1 5
12 Netherlands 3 1 1 5
13 Poland 0 3 1 4
14 Italy 0 1 3 4
15 Slovakia 1 1 1 3
16 Czech Republic 1 0 2 3
17 Japan 0 1 2 3
18 Australia 1 1 0 2
19 Latvia 0 2 0 2
20 Belarus 0 1 1 2
21 Croatia 0 1 1 2
22 Slovenia 0 1 1 2
23 Britain–UK 1 0 0 1
24 Estonia 0 1 0 1
25 Finland 0 1 0 1
26 Kazakhstan 0 1 0 1

The US is in the lead, with respectable showings by Germany, Norway, Russia and Canada.

But an examination of those ranks according to GDP per capita juggles the situation somewhat.  (The GDP figures and population figures come from the CIA Factbook.)







GDP GDP per capita
RANKING Country Gold Silver Bronze Total per Capita per Medal
1 China 3 1 1 5 $6,500 $1,300
2 Germany 7 9 5 21 $34,200 $1,629
3 United States 7 8 10 25 $46,400 $1,856
4 South Korea 4 4 1 9 $27,700 $3,078
5 Canada 5 4 1 10 $38,400 $3,840
6 France 2 2 4 8 $32,800 $4,100
7 Norway 6 3 5 1 $54141 $4,153
8 Austria 3 3 3 9 $39,400 $4,378
9 Poland 0 3 1 4 $17,800 $4,450
10 Sweden 3 2 2 7 $36,800 $5,257
11 Russia 2 3 6 11 $59,300 $5,391
12 Belarus 0 1 1 2 $11,600 $5,800
13 Switzerland 5 0 2 7 $41,600 $5,943
14 Slovakia 1 1 1 3 $21,100 $7,033
15 Latvia 0 2 0 2 $14,500 $7,250
16 Italy 0 1 3 4 $30,200 $7,550
17 Netherlands 3 1 1 5 $39,000 $7,800
18 Czech Republic 1 0 2 3 $25,100 $8,367
19 Croatia 0 1 1 2 $17,600 $8,800
20 Japan 0 1 2 3 $32,600 $10,867
21 Kazakhstan 0 1 0 1 $11,400 $11,400
22 Slovenia 0 1 1 2 $28,200 $14,100
23 Estonia 0 1 0 1 $18,800 $18,800
24 Australia 1 1 0 2 $38,500 $19,250
25 Finland 0 1 0 1 $34,900 $34,900
26 Britain 1 0 0 1 $35,400 $35,400

China, previously ranked number 11, now soars into top place, while Germany and the United States hold their own at 2nd and 3rd place, respectively.

You gotta love mild mannered, polite Canada.  Its ranking – a solid fifth – hasn’t changed.  This is a country that really doesn’t want to trouble anyone.

Great Britain, a nation bedeviled by both too little sun and not enough snow – and yet with a respectable amount of GDP  (it’s 32nd out of 228 nations, globally listed) falls to the bottom of the scale, with one medal to take home – but at least it’s a gold.

(Leave it to the Brits though to win it in the sport called “skeleton sliding.” It’s a form of single-person bobsledding, or what looks like headfirst luge – but its name makes it sound so quintessentially British – like something to watch while eating haggis.)

Despite the climb up the rankings by China, I’m not sure there will be high-fives across Beijing anytime soon. (At least, there shouldn’t be.)  What it really means, as the next chart will reveal, is that for every Shen and Zhao doing triple-toe loop jumps across the ice, there are a few thousand peasant farmers working the land in ways that probably haven’t changed much since the Cultural Revolution.

Number of
people in 100,000’s
RANKING Country Gold Silver Bronze Total Population per medal
1 Norway 6 3 5 14 4,660,539 3.33
2 Austria 3 3 3 9 8,210,281 9.12
3 Slovenia 0 1 1 2 2,005,692 10.03
4 Switzerland 5 0 2 7 7,604,467 10.86
5 Latvia 0 2 0 2 2,231,503 11.16
6 Sweden 3 2 2 7 9,059,651 12.94
7 Estonia 0 1 0 1 1,299,371 12.99
8 Slovakia 1 1 1 3 5,463,046 18.21
9 Croatia 0 1 1 2 4,489,409 22.45
10 Netherlands 3 1 1 5 16,715,999 33.43
11 Canada 5 4 1 10 33,487,208 33.49
12 Czech Republic 1 0 2 3 10,211,904 34.04
13 Germany 7 9 5 21 82,329,758 39.20
14 Belarus 0 1 1 2 9,648,533 48.24
15 Finland 0 1 0 1 5,250,275 52.50
16 South Korea 4 4 1 9 48,508,972 53.90
17 France 2 2 4 8 64,057,792 80.07
18 Poland 0 3 1 4 38,482,919 96.21
19 Australia 1 1 0 2 21,262,641 106.31
20 United States 7 8 10 25 307,212,123 122.88
21 Russia 2 3 6 11 140,041,247 127.31
22 Italy 0 1 3 4 58,126,212 145.32
23 Japan 0 1 2 3 127,078,679 423.60
24 Britain–UK 1 0 0 1 61,113,205 611.13
25 Kazakhstan 0 1 0 1 15,399,437 153.99
26 China 3 1 1 5 1,338,612,968 2,677.23

Looking at the medal count against population  – not surprisingly -  shows that the top of the rankings become dominated by small, wintry countries.  Some are former Soviet states. Some – like Norway and Sweden -  have so little sun in winter that they score high on global suicide rates.  No wonder they’re cardiovascular gods – they need the endorphins.    (And Latvia, for the first time – has pulled out ahead against South Korea!)

Canada, alas, is still holding steady in the middle.

The US and Russia – once bitter enemies in the days of the Soviet Union and “Miracle on Ice,” fall to 20th and 21st – not exactly a clash of titans. Based on population, even Australia edges out the US in the medal rankings – in the Winter Olympics. Clearly,  something is wrong with this picture.

Perhaps the best way to judge the medal-count would be to examine that amount of GDP per capita invested in national training programs for the Olympics – perhaps cross-referenced with some sort of population count.  Still, that wouldn’t explain such phenomena as Kenya’s domination of long-distance running.

So maybe, it’s not about the medal count in the end. It’s how you play the game.


Comments

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  1. collapse expand

    I wondered if Norway would get to the top on medals/population.

    Excellent piece, MP. An excellent use of Hard Sums to show that big countries aren’t always the best ;-)

  2. collapse expand

    Its not easy to simply say that if you not count the medals-how then may you determine whos top and whos not; its okay to judge the winning country through this medal count, for winners have winning position on the podiums, while losers cheer on!

    http://www.twitter.com/writtenviews

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