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Who Were the Biggest Winners (and Losers) in the Olympics?

August 15, 2012

The opening ceremony for London. 2012.

The conclusion of the 2012 Olympic Games in London offers an opportunity to reflect on the distribution of medals amongst participating countries. Most will look no further than the medal count standings to determine the most dominant countries in athletics. But is that an accurate way to judge a nation’s true performance? Many would argue that a casual glance at the medal winnings is unfairly skewed towards the bigger countries with larger populations, resources, and Olympic delegations. In response, analysts have taken into account numerous variables such as GDP, population, inflation, growth rate, unemployment, labor force, health expenditures, ex-host, and team size to provide adjusted indicators of Olympic success.

The final medal count.

The U.S. and China have exchanged first and second place in the gold medal and overall medal counts dating back to Athens 2004, but they also represent the largest and second-largest economies in the world. With America’s competitive sports culture and expenditure in the sports industry that exceeds $69 billion a year, it’s not  difficult to see why they are so successful; China owes a large part of its surge in recent years to state-funded sports academies that develop athletes from a very young age. The correlation between economic size and medal winnings holds true on a larger scale as well: seven of the ten countries with the largest economies (U.S., China, U.K., Russia, Germany, France, and Italy) were in the top ten at London. Olympic medals can’t be bought, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to come from a large economy that spends a good chunk of its income on sports.

Countries with the lowest GDP-to-medal ratio.

But what happens when the number of medals a country wins is divided by the size of its economy? Things get a little more interesting: none of the larger countries make the cut. With an economy of $1.5 billion, the Caribbean nation of Grenada won first place in the GDP per medal contest when native sprinter Kirani James won gold in the 400 meter sprint, Grenada’s first medal ever. Jamaica, led by Usain Bolt and the rest of the track team were good for silver in the contest. The U.S. was nowhere in the mix: their 104 medals divided by a GDP $15.1 trillions amounts to $145 billion per medal earned.  India was one of the biggest losers, with  $753 billion GDP per medal, two silvers and four bronzes.

Medals per capita.

A Medals per capita measurement tells a similar story. Grenada and Jamaica are once again first and second place respectively with 110,000 and 225,000 persons per medal (PPM) won. Americans were in the middle of the pack with the pack with 3,013,000 PPM, but good enough to outpace the Chinese that managed 15,310,000 PPM. If the Chinese had managed the per capita production of the Americans, they would have won 447 medals, assuming that the number of Olympic events grew to accommodate their massive gains. India was dead last at 206,915,000 PPM; the only other country that came remotely close to such a lackluster performance was Indonesia, with 118,820,000 PPM.

Medals per athlete.

Another reasonable criterion is medals per athlete (MPA). Geographical location and budget constraints may restrict the size of an Olympic delegation; most countries are forced to make the difficult decision of sending a limited number of athletes, giving preference to those that have the best shot at winning. Jamaicans reign supreme, with 0.50 MPA. Some criticized the 529-member delegation of Team USA as extravagant, but it was a competitive field: they came in second with 0.483 MPA when adjusted for team sports. After its worst performance in sixty years, Bulgaria split a silver and bronze amongst 63 athletes, giving them a 0.032 MPA.

Were the U.S. medal wins really that impressive?

Adjustment of performance can also come from the de-emphasis of a single sport and the elimination of multiple event wins by one athlete. The rationale behind the mentality is that a truly dominant country will be able to win in a broad range of events rather than confine itself to a certain specialty. In such a measure, each sport would be equally emphasized to close some of the bias against athletes that can only enter one event that takes the entire duration of the games. One thing is certain: Americans, who received 58 percent of their medals for swimming and athletics would not fare so well under such adjustment. Elimination of multiple winners would hurt even more. If swimmers Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte, Missy Franklin, and Allison Schmitt could only win one gold medal, the U.S. would lose nine golds, five silvers, and three bronzes. And that’s only four athletes.

Regardless of the way the numbers are crunched, there is a certain human element to the Olympics that transcends the medals. Stories such as Oscar Pistorious provide gripping narratives of the persistence of the human spirit in the quest to become faster, higher, and stronger, something that can rise above nationality and self-interest. That’s one of the biggest reasons the Olympics are so fun to watch.

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