Olympic Medal Count by Population and GDP

Now that the swimming is over, Australia is likely to see its rankings in the Olympic medal tally start to fall. To feel better about this situation, people like to start pointing out that we still look pretty good for a small country and it’s certainly true that of the countries currently in the medal tally (as at 22 August 2008), we rank only 36th in terms of population. Ever since I blogged about the data-sharing site  Swivel, I have been regularly updating a data-set with the medal tally. So, it was a simple matter to add in population as well. The chart below provides a high-level overview of the medal results by population. It shows both the total number of medals won and the gold medals. The further a country sits in this chart above a 45 degree line, the better it is doing by population.

Total Medals (blue) and Gold medals by Population

So Australia’s performance certainly looks good on this basis. On the other hand, China’s large medal haul doesn’t look too good and India’s performance looks terrible. However, many of the smaller countries are lost in the cluster of points in the bottom corner, so here is a chart of the top 25 countries in terms of score per million population (score is calculated as 3 points for a gold medal, 2 points for silver and 1 for bronze). Jamaica tops the rank, but we come in a respectable sixth place. Some Australians may, however, be disappointed to see New Zealand pip us into fourth place.

Of course, looking at performance by population does not take into account the fact that Australia spends a lot of money on sport, especially through funding the Australian Institute of Sport. Unfortunately, digging up figures on expenditure on sport around the world would be rather tricky, so I’ve chosen Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a rather crude proxy. All the GDP figures are in US dollars. Looking at medals on this basis, China’s efforts now look far better than the USA which is a standout under-performer. India too has retreated back into the dot cluster. At first glance, Australia’s results still appear quite respectable.

Total Medals (blue) and Gold medals by GDP

The chart below shows the top 25 countries in terms of score per US trillion dollars of GDP.

Zimbabwe comes out on top, reflecting more than anything else the collapse of their economy under Mugabe’s rule. Jamaica is not far behind in second place and Mongolia takes the bronze. Australians may be disappointed to see New Zealand scrape into the top 25 while we do not: we are near the back of the pack in 58th place (although we do look rather better only considering gold medals by GDP).

I also found an interesting blog post on the +plus site that looks at modelling medals in terms of both population and GDP as well as the boosting effect of being the host country. Perhaps when the games have finished, I will run this model on the final medal tally.

All the data used here is available on Swivel. I was intrigued to discover that, within hours of posting the data, someone had featured the data in a chart on Youcalc, yet another data-exploration site which I had not previously been aware of. Here is a the Youcalc chart, which shows medals by population or GDP and is more interactive than Swivel charts (although the units for GDP are not correct and should read “trillion” not “million”).

UPDATE: Thanks to Martin English for the pointer to the LA Times “Medals per Capita (MPC) blog”, and in breaking news, the Bahamas are now back at the top of the MPC ranking. Also, Australia is now ahead of New Zealand in medals per capita!

ANOTHER UPDATE: YouCalc chart changed to trillions.

YET ANOTHER UPDATE: Jamaica is now back on top in the MPC rankings. A Silver in the Men’s 4 x 400m relay has shot the Bahamas back to the lead in the MPC stakes.

2021 UPDATE: for those of you who may have come across this post during the Tokyo Olympics looking for more up to date information, you may find this site of interest.

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50 thoughts on “Olympic Medal Count by Population and GDP

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  2. stubbornmule Post author

    @4fthawaiian: Thanks for the accolades…I’ll try to continue to earn the title!

    @martin: Interesting link to the LA Times! I’ll add it into the post. I see that the Bahamas have now leapt to the lead in the Medals per Capita (MPC) stakes…I’ll have to update my charts later tonight!

  3. Steve

    Did you notice the medal tallies shown in the main US newspapers (LA Times, NY Times, Boston Globe and Washington Post) all rank countries by total medals, rather than by gold medals? I wonder why…

  4. Matt Parsons

    Am loving your sensible analytic take on these important matters. More grist for the mill given the way the Poms have started to carry on. Ever thought about correlating historic data and ascertaining the greatest Olympic nation of all time? Would be fascinating to run the numbers.

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  6. Timbo


    This will all get a lot easier when the pesky games finish and people stop winning medals!

    Some of us Poms are crowing we’re crying about how we’re going to get stung for the 9 Billion the next games are going to cost us!

    Couldn’t you take them back…..please??

  7. stubbornmule Post author

    @Timbo: sounds like a familiar story. There was a lot of criticism about the cost in the lead-up to the Sydney Olympics in 2000, although it all seemed to stop once the Games actually started. Then people started to get on the “best Games ever” band-wagon,

  8. Bill S

    I’m curious as to what the actual count of medals given out to athletes broken down by country would be. For example: for a 4 person relay there is one medal for each person in the relay but in the standard published medal counts everywhere you look it counts as just one medal. Any links to total medal counts? Anyone?

  9. Bill S

    I was trying to make it clear that I understood what the official line is on medal counts. Call me crazy, but just like some people think about economic stats vs medal count or population vs medal count, I am interested in the total number of medals actually given out to athletes. Just my own wacky curiousity I guess. I can’t believe I’m the only one thinking a gold medal in football is not equivalent to a gold medal in an individual event.

  10. stubbornmule Post author

    @Bill: ahh, I see…apologies for misreading your comment. Perhaps the count in the tally should be inversely proportional to the number of people in the team?

  11. Nords

    Stubborn one,

    Another great post. To get another perspective on a country’s dominance rather than just pure medals won or medals per capita, is to look at the dispersion of medals won. That is to look at a country’s ability to win medals across different olympic disciplines.

  12. Bill S

    Ok, I did the total count just for the US and China and according to the official web site and with no corrections to their tally which seemed odd because some of the 4 man relays list 6 people. Who has the time to go and find all this data? This is all I’m doing. Anyways here are the total medals awarded to all athletes of each country: US 77-B 109-S 125-G China 57-B 54-S 73-G.

  13. Jon Peltier

    Bill –

    The extras in the relays compete in earlier rounds, so the four finalists don’t all have to race in all heats. Only the four on the track or in the pool during the medal round get the medal. OTOH, I believe all members of a team for a field sport get a medal (i.e., there are six volleyball players on the court at once, but the subs also receive medals).

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  15. Ian Williams

    I am an Englishman living in the US and the contrast between the table in the US (order based on golds) and in the UK (order based on total medal count) is interesting. Always make the choice that makes your country closer to the top.
    I have been calculating “medals per million” for a few olympic cycles and would like to point out that in 2004 the Bahamas again lead the way at 6.67 – what’s with these guy’s? Australia did a little better in 2004 with 2.46. Actually over the years it’s quite clear that, based on size, Australia is the winner – congratulations you lot!
    Two last points. I think you have to quote at least a couple of decimal places when giving medals per million. Second, small countries are volatile using this measure, as a few outstanding performances really affects their standing, which makes the Bahamas feat quite remarkable.

  16. stubbornmule Post author

    @Ian: Thanks for the comments (and the overall award to Australia!).

    Also, I agree with you about the decimal places. In my follow-up post I used two decimal places in my Swivel charts. Omce I’ve come to grips with YouCalc (Soren sent me the details on how he created the chart above which should help), I will have a go at changing it to two decimal places as well.

  17. Ken Zimmern

    This is one of the only sites I found that calculated the Olympic medal count by population and GDP. You did a great job.

    I am not surprised that Jamacia rated high on both charts. Caribbean islands generally do well in the Olympics because their athletes oftten train in the U.S.

    Most Jamaican schools have an athletics program in the curriculum, so Jamaican children are into athletics at a young age. National athletic championships are incredibally popular in Jamaica and the athletes are normally competing to crowds of 20-25,000 people which is good preparation for major championships. Dominant athletes are normally picked for a competition where the best Jamaican schools and universities compete against the best American schools and universities.

    Many Jamaican athletes chose to train in the United States to use the better facilities.

    I’d be interested to see how the English speaking countries do as compared to non-English Speaking countries. I assume that English speaking countries have a higher ratio of success than non-English speaking nations. But I’d like to see if I’m right.

    Where can I find a complete chart with all countries?

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  19. Jack

    If you are talking about Olympic medal vs population, then the number of athletes representing their country should also be based on the population of the country. For example, China can have 3500 athletes but Australia can have only 50 since no matter how many people in a country, there is only one team can participate sports such as basketball, football, etc. There is no more than one gold medal of such sports can be awarded to the country. Therefore Olympic medal vs population is meaningless and ridiculous. Unfortunately many people don’t have such basic common sense.

  20. stubbornmule Post author

    @Jack: I agree that these limits do distort matters, but it doesn’t necessarily make population a completely irrelevant consideration. Even if the only event of the Olympics was a basketball, and each country could only submit one team, a country with a larger population would have a larger pool of potential players to draw upon and therefore, all other things being equal, would have a better chance of fielding a better team. Of course, not all other things are equal, for example Australia can spend significantly more on training athletes than a poorer country of a comparable size, which is why I also took GDP into account as an (admittedly crude) proxy for spending power on sport.

  21. Jack

    Stubbornmule: If you think population is a major factor and China has larger pool of potential players, why China still has no achievement in track & field which hold largest amount of medals while Australia can gain so many gold medals in swim (even more in last game) which do not show any proportion to their population. I don’t think Chinese sports authority doesn’t pay attention or make no efforts on it. There are so many factors will affect a athlete to achieve good result such as training method, technology, coaches, management, psychology, mental, sprit, just name a few. Exaggerating certain factor does not seem to have any scientific evidence.

  22. stubbornmule Post author

    @Jack: I’d agree that there was nothing particularly scientific in my post: I simply presented the tallies without any analysis. However, there choice of population and GDP was not without some basis. In the post I included a link to another blog post in which the authors found that a regression based on both population and GDP at once provided a reasonable degree of explanatory power. They also pointed to another paper which was able to improve the results by combining population, GDP and additional factors which capture host nation advantage, whether the country had previously been part of a the Soviet bloc and whether the country had a planned economy. My intuition behind that is that money spent on sport has explanatory power but the data is hard to obtain. GDP provides an initial proxy, but it can be improved. For example, while North Korea’s GDP is fairly small, it would appear that they do spend a reasonable amount on sport. Including a factor for planned economies aims to capture this effect.

    Both of the pieces of analysis referred to here pre-date the Beijing Olympics, so I have been planning to update the analysis with the results of the latest Games. Your comments are a good catalyst to do so, and I aim to publish the results soon.

  23. stubbornmule Post author

    One further point I should add is that when a country does spend money on sport, there are still budgeting decisions to be made as to how to spend that money to best effect, It is likely that different countries will focus on different sports. It should come as no surprise, for example, that a country like Australia with its beaches and strong swimming culture would concentrate more on swimming than other countries. Similarly, China has had a traditional focus on gymnastics. So while GDP can be expected to provide some predictive power for medals won, I would not expect those medals to be evenly distributed across events. Rather, I would expect to see clumping.

  24. Jack

    Stubbornmule: according to your last point, it sounds like money talk, not the population talk. What really annoying me is that many people really believe the number of gold medals a country has should be directly proportion to its population. They believe, taking Australia as an example which has 14 gold medals, is equivalent to 14 multiplied by the Chinese population, divided by the Australia population, ends up around 900 gold medals. This kind of calculation method is really ignorant. Of course, population is a factor, money is also a factor. But how do they correlate to the number of gold medals, should be ax^(1/n)+b or exp(1/n), or log(n^a+…) or something else…., no one really knows. As I said, there are a lot of factors and variables. It is not a simple solution. It is not a linear equation. It can be more than one solution. Without sophisticated modeling and research, talking something like this is just to fool people around and misleading (Please forgive what I said).

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  28. Lazza

    I’ve come to this discussion quite late, but wanted to point out that no-one has also considered the Winter Olympics. If the medal tallies from these were added to the “Summer” Olympics I am sure it would significantly alter the results ie improve radically the standing of Nordic and other other cold climate countries.

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  30. Terre

    I still don’t know how the table presented here can be correct, in summer Olympics Sweden has 142 gold medals, Australia has 131. Sweden has 9 million people Australia has 22 million. How can Australia be ahead of Sweden even if we are using summer Olympics anyway? Btw, Australia has 5 winter Olympics gold medals.

  31. Stubborn Mule Post author

    Terre: it would have been more obvious back in 2008 when the post was put up, but the charts only refer to the results of the 2008 Summer Olympics, not all Olympics in total.

  32. Matt

    I’m looking forward to a revisit of this discussion in the next month. Any thoughts on how to improve the model?

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