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. Begging the ? says:

    Why is country size exogenous?

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  2. 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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  3. 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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  4. 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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  5. 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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