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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  1. 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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  2. 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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  3. 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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  4. 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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  5. 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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  6. 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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  7. 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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  8. 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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