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