Olympic Medals Won by Nations – A Deeper Analysis

Recently I posted about the United States’ dominance of the all-time Olympic medal lists (hey, I’m a Merkan – give me a break). But there are some things that can be analyzed a bit more closely.

Firstly, the United States is the world’s 3rd most populous country, after China and India. It would stand to reason that a country with more people would have a larger pool from which to draw great athletes. The US is also the world’s 3rd (or possibly 4th) largest country, after Russia and Canada, although not certain if that has any effect. (China and the United States are almost the exact same size and sometimes China is listed the 3rd largest nation.)

Secondly, the United States is a wealthy country, with the world’s largest gross domestic product (GDP). Again, a country with great wealth has several advantages in terms of producing great athletes and Olympic medalists. Not only is there more money to support the athletes, theoretically, but people from wealthy nations typically have more leisure time allowing them to train more for sports.

So let’s look at the Olympic medal lists in a couple different ways. Remember that North America and Europe/International analyze medal lists differently – in North America the nations are ranked by 1) medals, 2) gold, 3) silver, and 4) bronze; while in Europe they are ranked by 1) gold, 2) silver, and 3) bronze. So we’ll compare lists both by total medals won and gold medals won (we can’t use silver and bronze well in the analysis that will follow).

Second, a caveat is in order. We are going to eliminate any nations that no longer exists – you’ll see why soon.

We will then look at medals won in terms of 1) medals won per capita, or divided by the nation’s population, to eliminate the advantage gained by larger nations; 2) medals won per GDP, to eliminate the advantage gained by wealthier nations; and 3) medals won per GDP per capita, which is probably a better way to measure a nation’s wealth.

Here is the basic top 25 medal list, uncorrected, with ranks on the left both in US system and the European system:

RankUS RankEur NOC G S B Meds
1 1 United States 1083 863 760 2706
2 2 Soviet Union 473 376 355 1204
3 3 Germany 292 326 312 930
4 4 Great Britain 254 288 287 829
5 6 France 250 265 314 829
6 5 Italy 243 206 231 680
7 8 Sweden 194 210 236 640
8 10 Russia 183 166 179 528
9 7 China 213 166 147 526
10 9 German Demo. Rep. 192 165 162 519
11 13 Australia 144 159 185 488
12 12 Hungary 169 151 170 490
13 11 Norway 174 162 142 478
14 14 Finland 145 147 175 467
15 15 Japan 140 143 160 443
16 16 Canada 122 156 167 445
17 17 The Netherlands 115 125 140 380
18 19 Switzerland 101 116 114 331
19 21 Austria 82 115 119 316
20 20 Romania 88 94 120 302
21 18 Korea (South) 107 99 90 296
22 23 Poland 70 89 132 291
23 24 Fed. Rep. of Germany 67 82 94 243
24 26 Bulgaria 52 87 81 220
25 22 Cuba 71 65 66 202

This is as we noted, with the USA on top, in both systems. We will eliminate the Soviet Union, Federal Republic of Germany (West), German Democratic Republic (East), and other non-extant nations, such as Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. The reason now becomes more obvious – we are using current figures for population (2014) and gross domestic product (2013), and those figures don’t exist any more for those nations, and there is no good way to extrapolate to them. Here are the population, GDP, and GDP per capita figures (Source: US CIA Factbook) for the top 25 nations on the “raw” medal list:

NOC Population GDP GDP PC Status
United States 318892103 $16720000 $52800
Soviet Union NLE
Germany 80996685 $3593000 $39500
Great Britain 63742977 $2490000 $37300
France 66259012 $2739000 $35700
Italy 61680122 $2068000 $29600
Sweden 9723809 $552000 $40900
Russia 142470272 $2113000 $18100
China 1355692576 $9330000 $9800
German Democratic Republic NLE
Australia 22507617 $1488000 $43000
Hungary 9919128 $130600 $19800
Norway 5147792 $515800 $55400
Finland 5268799 $259600 $35900
Japan 127103388 $5007000 $37100
Canada 34834841 $1825000 $43100
The Netherlands 16877351 $800500 $41400
Switzerland 8061516 $646200 $46000
Austria 8223062 $417900 $42600
Romania 21729871 $188900 $13200
Korea (South) 49039986 $1198000 $33200
Poland 38346279 $513900 $21100
Federal Republic of Germany NLE
Bulgaria 6924716 $53700 $14400
Cuba 11047251 $72300 $10200

NLE=No Longer Exists

Here is what happens if we look at medals and gold medals per million population:

Rank NOC Meds Meds/Pop
1 Liechtenstein 9 241.203
2 Norway 478 92.855
3 Finland 467 88.635
4 Sweden 640 65.818
5 Hungary 490 49.400
6 Switzerland 331 41.059
7 Austria 316 38.429
8 The Bahamas 12 37.286
9 Denmark 185 33.219
10 Estonia 40 31.798
11 Bulgaria 220 31.770
12 New Zealand 101 22.945
13 Jamaica 67 22.867
14 The Netherlands 380 22.515
15 Australia 488 21.682
16 Cuba 202 18.285
17 Slovenia 34 17.100
18 Belgium 155 14.833
19 Trinidad & Tobago 18 14.707
20 Bermuda 1 14.319
21 Romania 302 13.898
22 Greece 144 13.364
23 Great Britain 829 13.005
24 Canada 445 12.775
25 Iceland 4 12.604
Rank NOC Gold Gold/Pop
1 Liechtenstein 2 53.601
2 Norway 174 33.801
3 Finland 145 27.521
4 Sweden 194 19.951
5 Hungary 169 17.038
6 The Bahamas 5 15.536
7 Switzerland 101 12.529
8 Estonia 13 10.335
9 Austria 82 9.972
10 New Zealand 42 9.541
11 Grenada 1 9.078
12 Denmark 46 8.260
13 Bulgaria 52 7.509
14 The Netherlands 115 6.814
15 Cuba 71 6.427
16 Australia 144 6.398
17 Jamaica 17 5.802
18 Romania 88 4.050
19 Great Britain 254 3.985
20 Italy 243 3.940
21 Belgium 41 3.924
22 Luxembourg 2 3.841
23 France 250 3.773
24 Germany 292 3.605
25 Greece 38 3.526

One thing of note above – the top nations are predominately winter sports nations. Liechtenstein, in particular, owes all of its medals to two winter sports families – the Wenzels and the Frommelts. Also, if you look at the two lists above, they are quite similar when using both ranking systems.

Now let’s look at how the nations do if we compare medals won per GDP, in million $:

Rank NOC Meds Meds/GDP
1 Jamaica 67 4656.011
2 Bulgaria 220 4096.834
3 Hungary 490 3751.914
4 Cuba 202 2793.914
5 Mongolia 24 2154.399
6 Tonga 1 2096.436
7 Kenya 86 1898.036
8 Finland 467 1798.921
9 Liechtenstein 9 1760.219
10 Korea DPR (North) 49 1750.000
11 Estonia 40 1647.446
12 Romania 302 1598.729
13 Georgia 25 1567.398
14 The Bahamas 12 1433.178
15 Belarus 91 1314.269
16 Grenada 1 1233.046
17 Sweden 640 1159.420
18 Armenia 12 1153.846
19 Ethiopia 45 950.570
20 Norway 478 926.716
21 Moldova 7 882.501
22 Latvia 26 855.826
23 Zimbabwe 8 763.359
24 Austria 316 756.162
25 Slovenia 34 726.185
Rank NOC Gold Gold/GDP
1 Hungary 169 1294.028
2 Grenada 1 1233.046
3 Jamaica 17 1181.376
4 Cuba 71 982.019
5 Bulgaria 52 968.343
6 The Bahamas 5 597.158
7 Finland 145 558.552
8 Kenya 25 551.755
9 Estonia 13 535.420
10 Korea DPR (North) 14 500.000
11 Romania 88 465.855
12 Ethiopia 21 443.599
13 Liechtenstein 2 391.160
14 Georgia 6 376.176
15 Burundi 1 373.692
16 Sweden 194 351.449
17 Norway 174 337.340
18 Zimbabwe 3 286.260
19 Belarus 18 259.965
20 New Zealand 42 231.916
21 Surinam 1 199.641
22 The Ukraine 35 199.430
23 Austria 82 196.219
24 Mongolia 2 179.533
25 Croatia 10 169.090

Again, the lists are similar, although Jamaica leads in terms of medals won per capita while Hungary leads in terms of gold medals won per capita. But Jamaica, Bulgaria, Cuba, and Hungary are in the top 5 on both systems.

Finally, looking at the medal lists in terms of GDP per $1,000 per capita:

Rank NOC Meds Meds/GDPPC
1 China 526 53.673
2 United States 2706 51.250
3 Kenya 86 47.778
4 Ethiopia 45 37.500
5 Russia 528 29.171
6 Korea DPR (North) 49 27.222
7 Hungary 490 24.747
8 Germany 930 23.544
9 France 829 23.221
10 Italy 680 22.973
11 Romania 302 22.879
12 Great Britain 829 22.225
13 Cuba 202 19.804
14 The Ukraine 122 16.486
15 Sweden 640 15.648
16 Bulgaria 220 15.278
17 Poland 291 13.791
18 Zimbabwe 8 13.333
19 Finland 467 13.008
20 Japan 443 11.941
21 Australia 488 11.349
22 Canada 445 10.325
23 The Netherlands 380 9.179
24 Brazil 108 8.926
25 Korea (South) 296 8.916
Rank NOC Gold Gold/GDPPC
1 China 213 21.735
2 United States 1083 20.511
3 Ethiopia 21 17.500
4 Kenya 25 13.889
5 Russia 183 10.110
6 Hungary 169 8.535
7 Italy 243 8.209
8 Korea DPR (North) 14 7.778
9 Germany 292 7.392
10 France 250 7.003
11 Cuba 71 6.961
12 Great Britain 254 6.810
13 Romania 88 6.667
14 Zimbabwe 3 5.000
15 Sweden 194 4.743
16 The Ukraine 35 4.730
17 Finland 145 4.039
18 Japan 140 3.774
19 Bulgaria 52 3.611
20 Australia 144 3.349
21 Poland 70 3.318
22 Korea (South) 107 3.223
23 Norway 174 3.141
24 Canada 122 2.831
25 The Netherlands 115 2.778

Again, many of the “standard” powerful Olympic nations come out on top by this analysis – with China 1st and the United States 2nd. The main reason for this is that while population and GDP differ by several magnitudes among nations, there is not the same magnitude of difference in terms of GDP per capita, which varies from $102,100 per person for Qatar, down to about $1,000 for the very poor nations. But many of those nations have never won an Olympic medal.

7 thoughts on “Olympic Medals Won by Nations – A Deeper Analysis”

  1. It would be interesting if you were able to publish separate tables for the summer and winter Olympics. A combined table advantages those winter Olympic nations.

    Another interesting table would be just for the most universal of all sports – athletics

  2. This is great. It would be even better, if the medals from the non-extant countries be attached to their surviving offspring. I know that would be quite a task, perhaps insurmountable, these things are commonly a moving target.

      1. Not interested in snarky geopolitics at this venue. Why shouldn’t Estonia, Armenia, Slovakia, Slovenia…be credited with achievements of their members that competed under flags of USSR, Czechoslovakia or Yugoslavia.

        1. Given that this is purely a voluntary exercise where someone wants to show how many medals have been won by persons from a particular country under 2014 political boundaries this should be no problem – other that someone has to devote the probable many hours of research to come up with the correct numbers.

          I agree it would be interesting to see those numbers. but I imagine it would be a massive research exercise.

          As for “snarky geopolitics” I would observe that the whole Olympic movement has for years been all about “snarky geopolitics”.

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