Olympic Wrap-Up: Jamaica Wins; Aussies Are 5th; U.S. Ranks 33rd; China Is 47th

The Olympic Games are now over. All that remains is tallying up which are the greatest sporting nations on earth.

Following the norm of emphasizing the gold medal tally over the total medal count, we can now declare Jamaica the winner; with 2.2 gold medals per million inhabitants, it bolts ahead of any other country.

Second place is a bit more unexpected, with Rashid Ramzi’s victory in the 1,500-meter race giving Bahrain both its first-ever gold medal and a per capita rate of 1.4 gold medals per million.

Ian Ayres noted that there appears to be an emerging market for Olympic citizenship. Indeed, despite being awarded his medal under the Bahraini flag, Ramzi noted, “I am a Moroccan; I was born a Moroccan.” Apparently foreign direct investment can really help a country rise in the international league tables.

Estonia is the third-greatest athletic nation, with 0.76 gold medals per million, closely followed by New Zealand (0.73) and those mighty Australians (0.69). [Aside: Adding sheep into the population count puts the Australians safely ahead of the New Zealanders.] The next five on the league table are Mongolia, Norway, Georgia, Slovakia, and Slovenia.

Perhaps these rankings differ a bit from what you have seen in the mainstream press — but all I have done is assess these results in per capita terms, which is how we usually make international comparisons.

By this metric, the U.S. came in 33rd, and the host nation, China, came 47th.

Indeed, the real puzzle from the 2008 Olympics is why the United States is so terrible at transforming raw talent — the millions of Americans born every year — into world champion material. Moreover, the puzzle deepens once one accounts for the fact that, living in one of the world’s richest nations, U.S. athletes have unparalleled access to the latest training technology.

If we scale the gold medal tally by annual G.D.P. (a rough proxy, for sure), the U.S. falls to 47th, winning only 2.6 gold medals per billion dollars. The Chinese investment in sports success appears relatively unproductive, as they come in 35th on this measure. See the chart below for the full gold medal rankings.


For more details, see the raw data compiled by Simon Forsyth here; Carl Bialik has more here.

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  1. DG Lewis says:

    Perhaps one reason “why the United States is so terrible at transforming raw talent — the millions of Americans born every year — into world champion material” is that young Americans with top-tier athletic talent have many more opportunities for lucrative careers in professional athletics than, say, your average Estonian, thus drawing a significant part of the talent pool away from many Olympic events. (No matter how many talented American basketball players there are, the US can win only one gold medal in men’s basketball. If there was no NBA, some of those talented basketball players would likely pursue some other athletic activities.)

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  2. Chris says:

    The United States does not have a problem with turning raw talent into world championship material. The “problem” is that the United States invests its “resources,” i.e., elite athletes, into those sports that matter in the United States.

    24 of the most gifted athletes in the world, 12 male and 12 female, won only 2 gold medals for the U.S. in basketball. All of our gifted baseball players stayed at home. American football has never been an Olympic sport, despite being the most popular sport in our country.

    It is the same reason why the U.S. is competitive but not elite in soccer. Simply put, the rest of the world cares more about soccer (or table tennis, or trampoline, or long distance running…)

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  3. David says:

    Interestingly, the top of that chart looks a lot like one of Usain Bolt’s races.

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  4. z says:

    Maybe a better comparison would be gold medals per olympic participant?

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  5. Matt says:

    The real explanation is that your working set is inadequate. Even if the US won all of the gold medals except one and that one went to Jamaica, they would still outperform us in medals per capita. There are only so many medals available. Maybe an analysis based on percentage of medals won vs. investment would be more valid.

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  6. Jkaehler says:

    It’s a bit of an exaggeration to say that ‘America is terrible at transforming raw talent’.

    Look at the number of Olympians and world-class athletes that train with American coaches and American university teams for most of the year. One can’t underestimate the importance of foreign athletes receiving college scholarships in the US. Those athletes come to America to train with the best and be trained by the best, typically garnering all sorts of college accolades. They return to their home countries well coached and ready to emerge onto the international scene for their homeland. This speaks to the development programs in the United States; simply brushing them off as ineffective is an empty statement.

    One glaring example is Richard Thompson, the Olympic silver medalist in the 100m, a 4-year track star for LSU and citizen of Trinidad and Tobago.

    Others include: Milorad Cavic (the guy who nearly out-touched our beloved Phelps in the butterfly), Kirsty Coventry…

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  7. Tkwon CMS says:

    Counting gold medals per capita is misleading. If gold medals per capita should become fair, then every nation should be allowed to bring a number of athletes proportional to their total population. If that we’re to happen, China would’ve brought thousands of athletes and outnumber all top 10 (in medal rankings) put together (which would be ridiculous).

    A more fair ranking system would be to see their medalist : athlete ratio.

    China’s medalist:athlete ratio would be 100:639 = 0.156 per athlete, and gold medalist: athlete ratio would be 51:639 = 0.0798 gold medals per athlete

    U.S. -> medalist:athlete = 0.184 MPA (medals per athlete)

    -> gold medalist:athlete = 0.060 GMPA

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  8. Steven says:

    I think comment #1 sums it up quite well… If doing the medal count based on people per million, we should be awarded one gold per team member for basketball, volleyball and the other team sports. Basically, Jamaicans based upon this measurement, are awarded for plying their trade in an individual sport as opposed to a team sport. I bet if we did it where we got a gold medal per starter, aka basketball would count as 5 golds, we would be a lot better off.

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