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.


Begging the ?

Why is country size exogenous?

Peter

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.

KB

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?

Shan-ul-Hai

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

Nick Nolan

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.

LuxuryYacht

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

Adam

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.

Brian

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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Duncbot

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

funkg

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

Julian Togelius

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

James

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.

Reid

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...

Lynn

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.

Keivn H

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.

Mr Kid

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?

Jeremy

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

Alex

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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Tyler

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.

Jkaehler

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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