(This analysis was suggested by reader Joy C., who provided a link to the medal tables.)
China, even disregarding its cheating, grabbed the most gold medals (51 to the USA’s next best 36), but the USA took the most overall (110 to China’s next best 100). Either country, then, could be argued the better one depending on whether you value just gold or all medals.
But are there better ways to compare success than raw totals? For example, tiny Jamaica won 11 total medals, while Poland which is over 10 times as populated took only 10. Obviously, countries with enormous populations have a better chance at taking more medals because they have a larger pool of athletes to draw from. China, for example, has over 1.32 billion souls, with the USA has less than their decimal point, with only 305 million. (Population data gathered from Wikipedia.)
Let’s control for a country’s population and re-rank. Here is a table of some of the top countries with the medal totals normalized by population—total medals divided by population in millions. The number “Medals per million” is the number of medals won per million people.
|Rank||Country||Medals per million|
The Bahamas tops the list: they won 2 medals with a population of only 330 thousand, an amazing feat, or perhaps I should say with amazing feet since their medals were in running events. Jamaica has 2.7 million people and won 11 medals. Ranking countries this way puts the USA down at number 44, with China not coming in until 68, with Taiwan ahead of it! Incidentally, the BBC site, one of the many hosting medal count tables, fearfully lists Taiwan as “Chinese Taipei”, which is meaningless because Taipei is only one city in Taiwan. China, with the world’s biggest population, can lower their denominator and do better next time if they institute a new Cultural Revolution. Georgia can also take some comfort for coming in well ahead of Russia (15th to 37th place).
Smaller countries also, as a matter of necessity, have to be more focused. Cuba, for example, won the majority of their medals in various martial arts (boxing, judo, and so on; perhaps they’re expecting something after Castro kicks over). The larger countries have entrants in most sports: both Communist China and the USA won their medals in dozens of events.
Here’s another way to look at the same data. This is a plot of the population (note the logarithmic scale) by the total number of medals won.
Many of the names are tiny and unreadable, but the general drift can be seen: greater populations help win more medals, just as expected. But not always. India ranks in with over a billion residents, but only garnered a couple of medals. Indonesia and Russia are also hugely populated but have few medals to take home.
As always, money helps. Here is the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), a rough measure of economic output, by total medal count: (GDP estimated from Wikipedia.)
China looks like its GDP is just behind the USA, but it isn’t. For example, Japan is second, Germany third then China. Clearly, though, the more bucks the more bang. But as with population, not always. India’s GDP outstrips South Korea’s and Australia’s but it’s medal total is lower. One of the more interesting things about this graph is the wide range of GDPs: over 6 orders of magnitude!
The next step is to see the joint effect of increasing population and GDP. That’s what this next, more difficult, picture shows:
Each dot is a country’s Population and GDP; the number beside it is the number of medals won. Darker circles help guide the eye to higher counts. The highest dozen Populations and the lowest GDPs are highlighted for easier recognition. The double bang received from having lots of people making lots of money is easily seen, but the relationship is not perfect.
I am not trying to predict the medal counts for the next Olympics, hence this is no real statistical model. To build one would require the data from previous Olympics, summer and winter, tracking the number of events, the changes in politics and inflation and on and on. Too much work and in the end there would be too much uncertainty that the model proposed is valid. Showing the data plainly is the fairest procedure.
Just for fun, and having nothing to do with the Olympics, here are the top and bottom 10 countries of dollars made per person (GDP divided by population). You can think of this as a sort of measure of citizen efficiency.
|Rank||Country||Dollars made per citizen|
The USA makes the list at number 12 with about 45-thousand per person. England at number 11 is just about the same, mere dollars ahead. Non-Arabic Africa is at the bottom of all of these lists.
Of course, Luxemborg and Norway, at the top of this list, have less people that live in my neighborhood, so it isn’t entirely interesting. The largest population of the top 10 goes to Netherlands, which is equal to the population of Manhattan. Oh, the well run European countries! we often hear. But they are so tiny! Zimbabwe, the very bottom of the list, has about 13 million people with a paltry 48 bucks per head. North Korea’s population is estimated at about 24 million, but that was before last year’s winter, so their total dollars per capita could increase next year in that communist paradise.