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.

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

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COMMENTS: 85


  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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  9. Brooke says:

    Interesting analysis, but I’m afraid it doesn’t really reveal any useful information. Instead, what you’ve got on top are a bevy of small countries which happened to do well in a single sport. This is hardly an accurate representation of “the greatest sporting nations.”

    Aside from the fallacy that only gold medals count for anything (which I mentioned in the previous Olympic bias thread), you’re not taking into account that a great many of these athletes don’t even train in their countries of origin.

    What this really shows is how fortunate a lot of athletes were to be able to find another country whose coaches and facilities would train them, allow them to compete in college or professional athletics, then pack their bags to go home and wave the banner of their native country. Whose actual accomplishment is it?

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  10. Charles D says:

    Basketball is the only sport that is nationally recognized in the summer olympic games that we have great success in.

    On the same lines as Dubner’s idea on Bolt going to the NFL, how many other althetes would rather go into a sport for money than for gold? I think the US basketball team shows how well the US does at grooming raw talent when driven by capitalist design.

    I don’t believe that athletes are only good at one sport. If they have natural talent, the best of athletes can apply it to almost any sport. I bet that a large majority of professional athletes didn’t play just one sport, they were probably on the all stars for each one they participated in.

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  11. Claire says:

    Keep in mind that there’s a limit to how many each nation can send in each event, meaning that this measure would really only be relevant if you could qualify as many people as you wish based solely on ability.

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  12. Alex says:

    Good call, DG.

    One factor – which may be due to the presence of so many professional leagues in North America – is that kids in sports tend to be specialized early. Those who are tall at 10 are told that they should play basketball, and not only that, they should be a forward. Those that are big are told that they’re linemen, etc.

    In most countries, as far as I’m aware, kids spend more time just generally playing and running around. This means that as they and grow they become athletes with a well-rounded set of skills which they can apply to the sports to which they’re suited as teenagers. The 10-year-old power forward who is the same height at 16 is screwed if parents and coaches have been specializing him in one position before it was too early to tell how he’d be as an adult. The same goes for the lineman who has a growth spurt and ends up skinny. How much of a difference does this make? Of course I don’t know, it’s just a tendency I noticed and have heard repeated by many others, which may be relevant.

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  13. Tyler says:

    Regardless of how populous a country is, there is a finite number of medals available.

    There are 302 possible medals. Using a rough estimate of U.S. population, even if the U.S. won EVERY gold, their maximum statistic would be 1 gold per million.

    So the limiting factors aren’t just athletic ability and training- they also include possible medals and total population.

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  14. Mr Kid says:

    Shouldn’t we also factor individual medals vs. team medals? It’s much easier for a country to produce a gold medal in a track event than in basketball, soccer or water polo. Shouldn’t a basketball gold medal be worth 12 (# on the roster), or at least 5 (number on the court) times more than the 100m gold?

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  15. Gavin says:

    Hooray for sample error.

    What I’d really like to see (anyone know where I can download the raw results data for every event?) is a mean or median finishing position by country, _with error estimates_. Obviously, some countries would still yield misleading data if there were no error estimates (imagine a country with only one athlete who finishes third)… but it’d be interesting to see, and a good indication of national program strength.

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  16. KB says:

    Should these scales take into account that only 302 gold medals are awarded at the Summer Olympics? Even if the US won all of the gold medals they still would not achieve the ratio Jamaica did. What if the scale calculated the difference between gold medals won per capita and the highest potential gold medals per capita?

    Using Forsyth’s data you get this top ten ranking

    China

    India

    United States

    Indonesia

    Brazil

    Russian Fed.

    Japan

    Mexico

    Germany

    Ethiopia

    In fact, if you calculated the scale as a percentage change between the highest potential and the actual you get this top ten. Which, I think, is the same as the rankings based on numbers of gold medals.

    China

    United States

    Russian Fed.

    Great Britain

    Germany

    Australia

    Korea

    Japan

    Italy

    Ukraine

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  17. Gary says:

    To expand on DG Lewis’ comment… really, the Winter and Summer games need to be taked together, since its stands to reason that Canada is going to have more (and presumably better) snowboarders per 1 million people than the U.S., just based on geography.

    Its also not really fair that 3 medals are awarded for men’s soccer, yet its the preferred sport pretty much the world over.

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  18. BukaHobbit says:

    It’s a little thing called freedom. As a country we don’t force anyone who shows talent into a sausage grinder training program…we leave the grinding to the annoying sports parents.

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  19. KB says:

    Just did the same comparisons of the difference between the highest potential and the actual gold medals won with Forsyth’s GDP data. Same results.

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  20. Todd says:

    What about the athletes trained in the US for other countries (esp. in our colleges)? Do we get to count them as being developed by America?

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  21. Rob Junior says:

    What would these numbers look like if you counted each member of a gold medal winning team. For example, the US mens basketball team counts as 12 gold medals or even 5 (since that is the number of players on the court at one time). The US’s seeming dominance at team sports should be taken into account.

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  22. Rachel says:

    Being a New Zealander we always get rather proud of “punching above our weight”.

    With only 4 million people we do consistently win medals across a range of sports (no sprinting-blip!) some of them

    BTW – last I looked, sheep were not allowed to compete!

    And to the person who said “American football has never been an Olympic sport, despite being the most popular sport in our country.”

    Um, perhaps you haven’t noticed – no-one else plays it! And American football is actually an entertainment event designed to sell advertising (all those breaks!) rather than a sport.

    How many people actually keep playing it socially beyond high school or college? It’s only the professionals. Real sports can be played by anyone, up and down the country, with the best competing.

    At least base ball with the so called “World” series is played and playable by a variety of people.

    Now Rugby, on the other hand, requires no padding, the same team plays attack and defence, is free flowing, and at least 20 countries came to the world Cup, which, although New Zealand didn’t win it (four more years! again!) we have always been top ranking.

    Men, women and kids, play socially at all grades and have a great time. Same with Basketball, Soccer, Cricket and Netball, where the world cups at least involve teams from more than one continent.

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  23. Doug says:

    KB #16, so you have listed the countries with the highest population, then the countries that won the most gold medals. What’s your point?

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  24. kirk says:

    Its really refreshing to see someone finally use statistics to indicate the average per person for in sports (3 cheers for Jamaica). This measurement has been almost exclusively used in economics and finance as indicators to express income, output, industrial production, stock market prices, etc and when used in this manner the charts above tends to be the inverse. The only exception being when measuring ‘negative’ indicators such as crime rate, bankruptcies, unemployment, etc that a country like Ja. would come out on top.

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  25. Vincent Clement says:

    When ranked by total gold medals, I am certain that the countries ranked below the US would not conclude that the US is “terrible at transforming raw talent”. The fact that the US has one the biggest teams at the Olympics suggests that the US is pretty good at transforming raw talent.

    I think a better measure would be the number of gold medals per total number of entries by country. A team or relay event would count as one entry. Each individual in an individual event would count as one entry.

    Each entry is a chance to win a medal, so I think that is a better measure of success or failure. You could divide the number of entries by population or GDP, for a per capita or per GDP statistic.

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  26. KB says:

    Doug #23

    You are right. Oh well. Perhaps there are diminishing Olympic gold medal returns by population and GDP.

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  27. Nina says:

    I like KB’s ranking. Especially since (s)he places Brazil in 5th! That would be a first.

    But, honestly, the method is great.

    And Doug (#16), I don’t know much about geography, but Ethiopia is definetely not the 10th country in population in the world. If you read KB’s text, you’ll understand.

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  28. G'Day Mate says:

    Brooke, what about Australia, then? A ranking of fifth in gold/capita is in line with other measures (6th by gold medal count, 5th by total medal count). Given that the higher-tally countries don’t seem to have a high per-capita ranking, are you really saying that we’re not boxing above our population’s weight (except ironically in boxing, where we barely compete)?

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  29. Jeremy Miles says:

    It seems that the smaller countries do better. Is that a variance problem? Small countries either get nothing, or if they get one medal, they do really well. Maybe there should be a (Bayesian?) adjustment of the residuals.

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  30. Nicolas says:

    #3 David: your comment is exquisite!

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  31. DaveV says:

    #6 Foreigners training at U.S. colleges is a two way street. These atheletes come here because they are heavily recruited by the colleges, with scholarships and living expenses. No other nation has a college sports environment that is as heavily financed and commercialized as the U.S., and the colleges need to show some winning results for their money. Ohio State’s athletic department’s budget last year was $102 million.

    On the outgoing side, most of the good U.S. soccer and indoor volleyball players now train and play in Europe. U.S. track and field athletes spend the summer in Europe since it is impossible to make a living running at the few U.S. track events. And, several of the U.S.’s gymnasts and coaches were born in Europe.

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  32. Sal says:

    To #4,#8,#14,#21:

    The second link given in Wolfers’ post addresses the issue of assigning multiple medals to team sports. To quote:

    “Computing gold medals presented to each athlete on teams in men’s and women’s basketball, men’s volleyball, women’s rowing, beach volleyball and relay teams in track and swimming, among others, the U.S. claimed 125 total golds to 74 for China. In total medals awarded, the United States scored 315 to 186 for China.”

    This is supposedly based on U.S. Olympic Committee Chief Executive Jim Scherr’s comment that, “More individual U.S. athletes will carry home gold medals around their neck than any other nation, if you want to count it that way.” Though it’s not obvious whether Michael Phelps only received one gold in the above tally or not.

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  33. Sune says:

    You could break up the US olympic team into states instead. That would probably put a bunch of US states on top of that chart.

    Theres obviously too big variance problems here. Maybe it’s time to put these rankings to rest. Theres a flora of critique points just waiting to be tapped whenever some ranking doesnt befit you.

    Now we’re down to team events vs single events nitpicking. Theres also the problem of some sports being so small that perhaps they shouldn’t weigh as much as bigger sports? Equestrian, clay disc shooting, speed walking.

    While the worlds biggest team sports, american football, cricket and soccer lays claim to the lionshare of talented male athletes, but only get a single gold medal.

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  34. k2000 says:

    Agree with Rob Junior. If you are denominating by total population, then all members of a gold medal winning TEAM should be counted as well (a medal is delivered to each member of the team, correct?). What do the numbers look like then?

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  35. Jonathan says:

    As a former Olympic athlete, I can tell you thst the answer to your question is twofold.

    First, as mentioned in comment #1 there is the siphoning off into the wide variety o fprofessional sports that exist in the U.S.

    Second, the U.S. actually does a pretty awful job of supporting its athletes financially. Most athletes cannot afford to pursue their discipline for long unless they are independently wealthy, work a regular job while training (with the expected effects on performance) or a participant in one of the few sports, such as track and field, skiing or swimming, where there are appearance fees or sponsorship deals.

    For some perspective, *after* I won a silver medal at the World Championships in September, 1994, the USOC gave me $2000 dollars as a medal bonus in January 1995, on which I lived for the next 5 months, since I was training 3-4 times a day, six days a week.

    You do the math, and compare that to state-subsidized athletes, or athletes in countries where they are allowed to “work”, but in reality can train at will.

    The support stipends have gotten better since then, but they are still pathetic compared to those of other rich / developed countries.

    America cares about the vast majority of its Olympians for two weeks, once every four years, and expects them to support themselves the rest of the time.

    Instead of asking why we don’t do better, you should be amazed we do so well.

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  36. tomas says:

    Sune: don’t you go leaving rugby off that list. a game played by England,Ireland, Wales, Scotland, France, Italy, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, South Africa, and heap of Pacific Island nations is probably worth more on an international stage than a game played solely by America.

    Generally agree that some Olympic sports are “worth” less than others. Cycling, sprinting, and soccer/football are far more competitive than archery or equestrian.

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  37. Seth Roberts says:

    Speaking of “transforming” I suggest you log tranform the x axis (“gold medals per …”)so that we can better see what’s going on.

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  38. tomas says:

    Given that the per capita measure seems biased to small nations, and the total medal measure seems biased towards large, why don’t we create a composite, half half measure?

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  39. Tristan says:

    The skew of the medals to nationality related to GDP is a bit bogus on the small end. Take Zimbabwe. It comes out on top with the GDP scale. However, they won 6 medal: Kersty Coventry won 4 of those:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kirsty_Coventry#2008_Olympic_Medals

    Kersty Coventry works, trains and lives in Texas.

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  40. Brian says:

    The Freakonomics blog grossly exaggerating a ridiculous claim based on sketchy, cherry-picked numbers that can’t stand up to even the simplest scrutiny? Noooooooooooooo…

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  41. aefhdg says:

    @ #22 the american football hater: it is possible to play football without pads, pay, or a stadium. all you need is a ball, a patch of ground and about seven people. what did the kennedy’s play on the white house lawn? what do millions of americans play every thanksgiving? football is really and truly the soccer of america

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  42. Mike says:

    Pretty simplistic analysis…

    If are looking for a population insensitive measure of country performance, it would be best to simply calculate the statistical relationship between population and medal number for all countries to reveal the (probably nonlinear) relationship between the two.

    You could then express the performance as a measure of deviation from the expected number of medals based on population.

    Given all the factors besides population that go into the medal count, I think this whole analysis is a bit silly, but that would certainly be a better way of doing it.

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  43. Stephen Smart says:

    First, full disclosure: although I am a lifelong sports fan, I watched almost zero Olympics. That’s right. However, I like the intense discussion about the rather prosaic article that claimed it wasn’t doing much by recalibrating medals by population or by GDP. Clearly the Olympics are way more political than any other sporting event and therefore “spin” is more important!

    Here’s my one addition to spin: the measurement procedure is inherently flawed for any number of reasons, but one not heretofore mentioned that is huge is that it isn’t just Americans who don’t care about most of the events: that is true of EVERY country! So what seems natural, i.e. that a Gold is a Gold is a Gold is in real life absurd. The winner of the seated target shooting contest is so much less important than the 100 meter or 1500 meter champion that it might as well not be compared at all. Here’s the rule of thumb: TV coverage worldwide. That would even out the interest that is solely due to one’s countryman competing, no matter how insignificant the event.

    Pretending that the golds are equivalent is like pretending that all sports leagues’ trophies are equally significant, which is so untrue. Even at the highest level, Tiger Woods said it all so unkindly when he said “No one really watches hockey much any more.” How much more true of an obscure Olympic event!

    So let’s throw out ALL such silly comparative measurement until it becomes clear what the “value” of each medal is actually worth. Just because something is an Olympic event does not make it a terribly significant sporting event, in the eyes of the world! I loved the curling events in the last winter Olympics, but did I seriously compare those medals with the hockey or basketball championships? Even Olympic basketball is not that big a deal, if you are a true basketball fan. The competition is just not all that good! Give me a good NCAA upset any day!

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  44. JGxHitzert says:

    Yea I think the metrics here are a bit skewed. The two highest grossing athletes in history are Tiger Woods and Michael Schumacher. Neither of these athletes sports are contested in the Olympics. Of the top five earners of 2007 only one, Oscar De La Hoya participated in an Olympic sport. Others that top the list of highest paid athletes participate in Team Sports or other non Olympic Sports. Consider Tony Hawk or Dale Earnhardt. Peyton Manning or Valentino Rossi. I’m terrible with math but somehow I think the drawing board needs to be gone back too.

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  45. Peter says:

    And to the person who said “American football has never been an Olympic sport, despite being the most popular sport in our country.”

    Um, perhaps you haven’t noticed – no-one else plays it! And American football is actually an entertainment event designed to sell advertising (all those breaks!) rather than a sport.

    How many people actually keep playing it socially beyond high school or college?

    You’ve touched on a very good point about football. There are almost no adult semipro or amateur leagues. It’s anything but a “sport for life.”

    By the way, as for advertising breaks, people who’ve timed games with stopwatches have determined that a three-hour game contains an average of twelve minutes of actual play.

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  46. Joan A. says:

    Athletic training costs money & time.

    When talented kids are very young their parent(s) have to be able to convey the child to quality training (often a commute), and be able to pay for it.

    Do other countries help with training for talented kids, keeping it available and affordable?

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  47. Eric says:

    Although we Australians may boast about winning nearly twice as many medals as any country our size, we also have the highest level of obesity. There’s an increasingly large gap between the fittest and the fattest.

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  48. Jeremy says:

    Surely you should rank them in Gold Medals/GDP per head of capita?

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  49. Keivn H says:

    whenever you are dealing with the top .0001% you are going to run into a huge amount of variance. Obviously that variance is going to make small countries stand out. There a lot more small countries than large countries.

    In order to deal with that variance, you’d probably need to take a number of uncorrelated samples. Because an athlete seems to have 2-3 olympic games in them, you’d probably need to average over at least 10-15 games to get a reasonable estimate of the signal in the noise.

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  50. Lynn says:

    Sorry, but you need to factor in an adjustment factor for the rigor of drug testing in each country. My daughter is an Olympic hopeful, and the level of scrutiny is pretty daunting in the US of A even in high school. How rigorous is it in other, less wealthy, less high-profile countries? I hope Bolt and his peers turn out to be clean because they are awesome, but his behavior makes me wonder.

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  51. Julian Togelius says:

    By the same measure, the European Union taken as a unit is much better than both China and the US in “transforming raw talent into world champion material”. See:

    http://www.idsia.ch/~juergen/goldcountbeijing.html

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  52. funkg says:

    Don’t you all realise that calling football ‘soccer’ to a Brit is the most annoying thing you could ever say? (:

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  53. Duncbot says:

    As an Australian I’m bursting with pride that we’ve somehow managed to force Kiwi sheep jokes into the world’s economic consciousness.

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  54. Adam says:

    Americans dominate the sports that pay real money. If track and water polo offered salaries in the 10′s of millions, we would dominate that too.

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  55. LuxuryYacht says:

    Don’t forget that Australia came 6th overall, the only country for which the /capita, /USD GDP and actual medal tally are pretty close!

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  56. Nick Nolan says:

    There was 302 gold medals given in olympics. China has population 1,322 million people (2007 est.) If China had taken all gold medals, it would be only 0.23 medals per million people.

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  57. KB says:

    Is it a problem that we are only including countries that won medals? Maybe we should be looking at all countries that competed or all countries in the world?

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  58. Shan-ul-Hai says:

    Good point. Consider Pakistan and Bangladesh (each with population > 160 million), which won a grand total of 0 medals. In fact, Bangladesh has never won an Olympic medal.

    I wrote an article a few days ago based on a similar idea (although not on my own blog; it was a guest post elsewhere), but with a slightly different purpose:

    http://www.rational-outrage.com/2008082540/political-outrage/world-peace-and-gold.html

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  59. Peter says:

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/7576446.stm

    Here are several other medals tables, which are adjusted by many of the metrics proposed above. For example if you adjust to billion dollars of GDP per medal, then North Korea actually comes out on top.

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  60. DaveV says:

    To #54 (Americans dominate the sports that pay real money…)

    Actually top track atheletes can earn more than $2 millon per year running races in Europe. Americans do well in track, but they don’t exactly dominate it.

    Soccer is another sport that America does not dominate. Yet the top soccer clubs and players in Europe make more money than any traditional American sport.

    Take a looks at this and see how few Americans are in the top list of highest paid athletes:

    http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/more/specials/fortunate50/index.20.html

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  61. luke says:

    myself, i think gold medals per events contended would be the most interesting metric of performance. of course “events contended” is a thorny term. take swimming for example. would it refer to events where you have a swimmer, or events where you made it through qualifying heats to participate in a race with the potential of a medal?

    which of course suggests that “gold medals per athelte in contention” would be better than even, since some contries will put forth several people for one event. case in point: the united states won all three medals in the men’s 400m dash.

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  62. Mike M says:

    @ #10-

    “Basketball is the only sport that is nationally recognized in the summer olympic games that we have great success in.”

    Your statement is a bit ambigious. Regardless of your intended meaning, women’s beach volleyball and swimming are both recognized as olympic sports americans are dominant in. And women’s beach volleyball has a fairly successful professional tour. Those are just off the top of my head.

    @ #22-

    “Um, perhaps you haven’t noticed – no-one else plays it! And American football is actually an entertainment event designed to sell advertising (all those breaks!) rather than a sport.”

    Um, perhaps you haven’t noticed, but all professional sports are entertainment events. It is the only way to draw revenue to support player’s salaries, facilities, coaches, etc. I love rugby too (played in college), but don’t hate a sport just because you don’t understand it.

    It’s hard to explain to someone on the metric system how incredible an athlete must be to weigh 360 lbs and still run a 4.6 40 yard dash. I know rugby draws a significant number of gifted athletes from your country, but our NFL guys are freaks-despite the ‘breaks’.

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  63. Gary says:

    To DaveV – I liked your link, except I think its a bit of a stretch to call auto racing a sport. Its physically demanding for sure, requires sharp reflexes, and a level of fitness, which certainly varies based on which kind of racing you’re doing, F1 and IRL drivers seem generally more fit looking than Nascar, perhaps because of the weight of the cars? But I’m not sure that’s really a “sport.”

    There are 3 problems with the list, and that logic.

    1) Its a list of foreign athletes… so by definition, Americans won’t be on it. See http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/more/specials/fortunate50/2008/index.html

    for US athletes. The highest paid athlete in the world, is in fact, Tiger Woods, 2.5 times Beckham’s earnings, who sits atop the list you cited.

    2) The endorsements are pretty much guesses, save for a few athletes who have highly publicized deals.

    3) A boxer has alot shorter career than a baseball player or golfer. If you’re going to pursue a sport to make the big money, what you earn over your career is more important than in a single year. Tiger has earned 3/4 of a Billion dollars playing golf. Oh… and he’s only 32, and there aren’t many people saying that Tiger’s fading. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect him to double his current total over the next 10 years.

    European athletes should be rapidly moving up the list in general. From 2004 to 2008 the Dollar Euro rate went from 1.10 Euro/1$ to 1.6 Euro/1$.

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  64. RZ says:

    DG Lewis @ #1 and Chris @ #2 gave good reasons why the U.S. doesn’t produce more Olympic Champions. I’ll add a third – culture. We live in a society where, for the most part, kids can grow up to do whatever they like. Doesn’t matter if you show enough talent at a young age to be the greatest marathon runner ever. If you don’t want to run the marathon, you don’t have to. Other countries don’t give their citizen as much freedom of choice. Guess what – you show talent for marathon running, well that’s what you’ll be doing from now on.

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  65. Jared says:

    I’m sure it’s already been mentioned above, but the US is only allowed a certain number of participants in each event. So, if someone gets 7th in 110 hurdles at the US trials, he may actually be the 7th best athlete in that event in the world. So, what I mean is, adjusting for population counts does compress the ability to earn medals a little bit.

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  66. Jeremy says:

    In response to post #51, ranking a unified EU is inherently flawed as well. Because the number of qualifying berths are limited per country, the EU has a greater share of the Olympic “lottery tickets” in any given event. If you were to treat each American state as its own sovereign country and awarded it the maximum number of allowed athletes per event and then summed the number of medals they all won, I’m sure you’d see a dramatic increase in the number of individual medals awarded to the United States in the games. Of course, that would weaken nearly all of our team sports, but they account for a much smaller percentage of the overall medal count.

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  67. Erika says:

    Thank you, thank you! I was just thinking about this in the shower this morning, wondering what the medal count per capita and GDP were. And here it is!

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  68. James L says:

    @47, Elite Athletic Spending.

    Was it here that I read that the more money a countries government spends on elite athletes the fatter the nation is. Countries who spend less on elite athletes but more on everyone else win less gold but have a population of healthier people.

    I say forget about Elite spending. Its my tax money, can’t we just spend it on cycle lanes and hospitals instead?

    Don’t get me wrong I like the games and what they entail, and I’m pretty sure money and a country winning it’s ‘share’ of medals per capita isn’t really one of them.

    The Australian government has even said now that we didn’t win enough medals that they are now going to spend more money! We came 6th in the world with only just over 20 million of us. That’s pretty bloody good.

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  69. Jacob says:

    We beat France!

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  70. LL says:

    If you don’t mind, I’d like to propose Canada for politest Olympic nation. As our sheer number of fourth-place finishes attest, we are happy to stand aside to let others pass, once we have achieved a Personal Best.

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  71. Jack says:

    Regarding the NZ-Aus sheep joke about counting sheep – if we are going to be strict about the count – I think NZ will still be ahead.

    NZ has 40m sheep, Australia has 90m sheep – giving todays sheep plus human populations of NZ at 44m and Australia at 110m.

    Unfortunately, while NZ will be ahead, counting sheep and humans together will no doubt put them at the bottom of the table!

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  72. Ravi says:

    Well, whichever way you slice and dice, one conclusion is undeniable: my country India comes right at the bottom!

    As you can see, we’re very proud of our sporting heritage :)

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  73. Dale says:

    I think the issue is there is a finite number of events. If there were infinite events, I think the US would do better. Plus the comment about basketball getting only one medal; it’s not like they had the 500m, 501m, 502m, 503m, 504m races where you can win 5 gold medals.

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  74. Hughes says:

    The test would be gold medals per dollar spent on preparing athletes for the olympics. I suspect the PPP version of this would be fairest. The US would then do better than China and Australia would fall down the list on this basis. African countries like Ethiopia would do well, as would Jamaica.

    Converting to sheep PPP (the number of sheep you could buy locally with the money spent preparing athletes for the olympics) and New Zealand would come in dead last.

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  75. Matt says:

    Is it me or are we missing the point here, Total medals as a way of picking overall success is the path you choose when the other guy wins more often.

    I know every country would rather have 2 Usain Bolts than 16 3rd place getters.

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  76. Reid says:

    From an ‘international’ perspective, I think it is amusing that instead of responding to the data in question, some question the legitimacy of the claim and then trying to find a measure by which the USA heads the table…

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  77. James says:

    I agree with Hughes that medals per dollar spent on athletes is definitely a better measure – if you are interested in how efficient countries are in transforming sporting talents.

    But I don’t think Olympics is about victory in per capita, per GPD, or per dollar spent on athletes terms. At the end of the day, the gold medal is awarded to the fastest man, not the fastest man per amount of time/money spent on training. In sports, execuses are for losers.

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  78. Brian says:

    In the end, I think almost everyone agrees on two main issues: (1) Using an Olympic medal count (gold or otherwise) as an indicator of a nation’s athletic talent is horribly flawed and (2) we all wish our respective home nations received more medals.

    I mean, who are we kidding? Michael Phelps produced gold medal after gold medal for the United States, but each medal was produced entirely within the pool. I do not want to take anything away from *his* outstanding achievements, but what would it mean for the total US tally if he did not compete, or if only one medal were given for his overall swimming speed (a swimming decathlon of sorts)? Or what if Bolt had torn his Achilles tendon prior to his first run, or if every Ping Pong event was removed from the Olympics due to an increase in focusing drugs… I think you see where I am going.

    In the end, every nation wants to produce as many medals as it can in very much the same way that every nation wishes to produce the best national economy that it can. But as with the national economy, no single equation tells even one sentence of the entire story.

    Winning 51 gold medals will not put more food in the mouths of the millions still impoverished in China anymore than it should be considered a shameful performance in light of the nation’s 1.3 billion citizens. At best, all a high gold medal tally indicates is that for a few weeks out of this year, Chinese food will taste just tad bit sweeter for 1.3 billion people. Manufacturing a horribly flawed “golds per million” analysis will do nothing to change that and honestly, I don’t see why it should.

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  79. CQFD says:

    The number of medals earned by country (x) in the olympics is a function of: a) the country’s population b) the popularity of proposed sports in the country (for instance swimming is not very popular in African nations, therefore they are less likely to have athletes competing in these events) c) the country’s investments towards developing olympic athletes (India has a population comparable to China but hasn’t invested much in developing athletes) d) the country population’s “athletic abilities” (whatever it means).

    x = a + b + c + d

    As a result, if we are trying to measure d starting with x, we have to discount a, b and c if we want a fair calculation:

    d = x / (a + b + c)

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  80. Pete says:

    While event golds per capita is an interesting statistic, it is clearly the wrong one to use to make the claims about athleticism in the various nations. In order to make a valid per-capita assessment of athleticism, one should make a per-athlete tally of medals: count one gold for each athlete awarded a gold medal rather than one gold for each event in which gold is won. It takes a lot of great basketball players to win gold in basketball. The true facts of exemplar athletes per capita explain why some countries tend to dominate the relay events even when they fail to win gold in the individual races. A nation needs far more athletic infrastructure to win the 4x100m relay than the individual 100m race.

    This is a great example of “how to lie with statistics” — it seems so compelling until an engineer or physicist points out that the units don’t match.

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  81. Begging the ? says:

    Why is country size exogenous?

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  82. Keith M says:

    So… Silver and bronze are worthless now?

    Maybe they should start making a 4th one out of platinum?

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  83. Kelly-Ann says:

    Adding to #31 and responding to #6, athletes from different countries (in various sporting events )train around the world (even US born athletes train in other parts of the world) and i have no problem with that, however if the individual lacks the talent neither top class coach, technology nor sponsorship can make them good (much more excellent) at a sport….

    PS, i really dont think that persons who are forced to do anything (sporting or otherwise) will do it to the best of their ability, and therefore may not perform well, so persons who are on top, are usually doing it for the love of it ……

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  84. Anabelle Smith Clementson says:

    What is this? This is totally inaccurate, and solving medals per million people is unfair. China had 51 gold medals, and Jamica had like 3!

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  85. Cheap Football Tickets says:

    I like that idea too. Keep some of the basic gymnastic movements (pull ups, push ups, etc) and basic strength (deadlift, presses) that just about every athlete is familiar with, then throw in a whole bunch of other random drags, carries, throws. Leave out the overly technical oly lifts and crossfit specific stuff like muscle ups and my old nemisis double unders. Make sure that the movements are those that both crossfitters and athletes from other sports could do at a fairly high level, then let’s see who’s really the fittest. Part of the genius of last year’s games was having things like the hammer WOD, trail run, and sandbag carry that pushed competitors outside of any Crossfit-centered comfort zone.

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