Evolving Thoughts

The real Olympic performers

Certain nations who shall remain nameless have been doing a fair bit of skiting about how well they’ve done. So I thought I’d do a bit of number crunching. Of course it isn’t completed (or is it?) but using the Wikipedia population figures and the official medal tally, I plotted gold medals per million population and medals overall per million population… Look below the fold for the surprising results

Blue is Gold medals per million of population. Green is medals overall per million of population.

Download PDF version

The US was 32th, China was 47th. The outstanding Olympic nation is Jamaica, and Bahrain, and the Central Asian, Oceanic and Northern European nations are the best general performers. Cuba deserves note as a good medal winner. Oh, and the Russians beat the Americans hands down.


  1. #1 kevin z
    August 24, 2008

    Jah Mon!! Go Jamaica, one love! Who says “dopin” doesn’t get you somewhere 😉

  2. #2 Bob O'H
    August 24, 2008

    It’s no surprise that smaller countries appear at the top of the table: the small size means that the randomness in medals gets magnified. If you plot all the countries present, you’ll see the smaller countries at the bottom too.

    I bet the Kiwis are happy with that graph too. 🙂

  3. #3 ot
    August 24, 2008

    hm.. Where’s Lithuania?

  4. #4 fusilier
    August 24, 2008

    Would it be TOO MUCH to ask you to put that in some format that enlarges into another window so that I can READ the frippin’ thang??????

    SOME of us out here aren’t just-past-adolescence with 20/15 vision.

    Thank you for your kind attention to this matter. Now would you please not play on my lawn?

    James 2:24

  5. #5 Susan Silberstein
    August 24, 2008

    Nice going Matthew Mitcham. In the U.S. coverage, they never mentioned that he is gay or showed him with his partner. Did/do they in the Australian press?

  6. #6 Thony C.
    August 24, 2008

    And GB is the most successful country with a population bigger than a rabbit warren 😉

  7. #7 Brian
    August 24, 2008

    What I would like to see is a chart of medals vs. expenditure.

  8. #8 Dharmakara
    August 24, 2008

    Out of curiousity, would the ranking have been different if you were only taking into account the population of the specific age groups of the country participating in the Olympics? The reason I ask is because I’m sitting here listening to a PBS program about the Baby Boomer population in the US.

  9. #9 pubcat
    August 24, 2008

    I am with Brian. Mostly because I hypotheses it will give me yet another excuse to bitch about how much funding sport gets and academia doesn’t.

  10. #10 jim
    August 24, 2008

    shouldn’t the americans get credit for 12 gold medals for the basketball team?? and soccer,and all other team sports? for all other countries the same should apply. as for the jamacains, there bobsled team stinks, but they got some good weed over there, can that be a factor? i volunteer to go to jamaica and find out.[boy,am i glad they beat out mongolia]

  11. #11 Slarti
    August 24, 2008

    Take that Aussies. When adjusted for population, New Zealand really does come out on top, despite the fact that our budget is just a fraction of Australia.

  12. #12 Nick Sullivan
    August 24, 2008

    Well in terms of expenditure, I know NZ spent approximately 10 million $NZ per medal. But I’m not sure if that takes into account the NZ competitors that didn’t win medals….

    And Cthulhu only knows how much the Aussies have spent with their sports training programs.

  13. #13 John S. Wilkins
    August 24, 2008

    I heard that we spent around $25 million per medal on the TV recently. I would much rather we used that money for something important, like a space race.

  14. #14 John S. Wilkins
    August 24, 2008

    I added a link to the PDF. I didn’t bother adding the countries that had no gold medals, so that is why Lithuania is missing.

  15. #15 John S. Wilkins
    August 24, 2008

    Matthew Mitcham was not only mentioned as gay, it was in the course of showing him finding “his partner” (who was interviewed) and hugging. It was, in other words, treated as unexceptional that he was gay.

    How would that play in the US, I wonder?

  16. #16 Susan Silberstein
    August 24, 2008

    Outwardly gay athletes can be treated as oddities. There are very few here. It is a bigger deal when it is a team sport, i.e. pro football or basketball – the team doesn’t want to stand out as the one with the gay player. Some players have come out after leaving sports and everyone is shocked, “But he was so straight and manly!”

    However, if an individual athlete is gay, the media is more likely to just ignore the issue or pay little attention to it. The only ones I can think of are women. People make jokes that the “L” in LPGA stands for lesbian.

    And as for how the Matthew Mitcham story would play out in the U.S., gay relationships between well-known people in Hollywood are, when known, as well-publicized as any other. But I just asked my husband and brother-in-law (who knows a great deal about sports) if they know of any out male gay pro or college sports figure and they both say no.

  17. #17 Divalent
    August 24, 2008

    Scoreboard, baby!

    (statistics are for losers)

  18. #18 efrique
    August 25, 2008

    Comparing medals per population implies that you expect number of medals to be proportional to population (other things being equal).

    Why would this be so, rather than to say log-population, or the square-root of population?
    (Clearly it will be related to population in some way, it’s just not obvious to me it should be proportional.)

    I’ve done some quick analysis on the 2008 data, and fitting power relationships to log(medals) and log(population) it looks as if for the bulk of medal-winning countries, both total medals and number of gold are related to the cube root of population. This is borne out further by looking at the relationship between medals/pop^(1/3) and log-population, which appears to display no trend (and power-curves fitted to the data then displayed on that plot are quite flat).

    On *that* basis, then, we would be comparing like with like. Which suggests that your medals per population measure dramatically favours small countries over large (and, of course, raw medals dramatically favours large countries over small).

    (On the basis of medals per cube-root of population, Australia narrowly beats USA, followed by Russia and the UK. On gold medals per cube-root of population, the USA comes first, followed by Australia, UK and China.)

    [Of course, then there’s GDP. We should probably make some assessment of how wealth affects medals before making this population adjustment. Then there’s the host-nation effect (the host nation is subject to different rules as far as qualifying athletes).]

  19. #19 John S. Wilkins
    August 25, 2008

    Get to it, efrique, and send me the results… I’ll post them.

  20. #20 Bob O'H
    August 25, 2008

    Which suggests that your medals per population measure dramatically favours small countries over large

    At a guess, you didn’t include all the countries that didn’t win a medal, did you? This can happen purely as an artefact of that – you pull the line up by excluding the points at the bottom (someone made the same error in Nature a couple of weeks ago).

    What I would do would be to fit a log-linear model to the number of medals with log(pop. size) as a covariate. You have proportionality if the coefficient is 1. Adding terms like GDP per population might be worth doing too (you can get the data from the CIA) – it could affect the results.

  21. #21 efrique
    August 25, 2008

    Well, actually, I already started working it up as a blogpost (it’s exactly the sort of thing I like to blather about there), but this week is a hell of a week for me, so I may not get even the basic versions of it done for days yet.

    If I don’t look like getting it posted I will try to send you a simple version though.

    And if I do get it posted, I’ll mention the fact.

  22. #22 efrique
    August 25, 2008

    Hi Bob,

    No, I didn’t include those (for the simple reason that I could only quickly find data without it), but I’m fully aware of the issue and planned to discuss it when I wrote it up. (It’s essentially the same issue as the temperature thing on the Challenger disaster.)

    However, for the countries that won at least one medal, I did include the ones that won no golds in my analysis of the relationships with golds (and yes, I know that’s still not sufficient).

    However, note all the *really* large countries won at least one medal, and most (but not all) of the non-winners had small populations, so the description up the high end may still be fairly reasonable without them, especially if we consider that here we wish to compare medal-winners, so the relationships with the variables conditional on being a medal winner is not necessarily a flawed analysis.

    I planned to get more complete data before posting on it, however (otherwise I could have sent John the analysis I already did – I did not because I wanted to investigate the effect of the non-winners, if any, on the relationships).

  23. #23 Alan
    August 25, 2008

    I’d really like to see a tally done of medals won per government dollar spent on sports.

    Pretty hard to find I imagine.

  24. #24 jim
    August 25, 2008

    hey, no matter how you figure it china won the most gold, america the most medals. the math won’t change that.everthing else is just foolishness, math statistics will drive you crazy. i think any ‘sport’ that is measured by human judgement should be eliminated. then we don’t have to worry about ‘the french judge’.

  25. #25 Rob
    August 25, 2008

    I think what the Jamaican athletes have accomplished during these olympic games is nothing short of amazing. I especially appreciate that a small country, with their many economic problems, had a chance to put them aside for 2 weeks to feel proud. Don’t we all deserve a moment in the spot light.

    Now admit it, despite the images some have of Jamaica, wouldn’t you still take a two week all paid vacation to a savory resort in Jamaica? I think you would do more than that, given that it still remains a very popular destination for Americans for vacation and for honeymoons too.:-)

  26. #26 Louis
    August 25, 2008

    So we GBians beat you Ozzies in sport…again (20:17 and no we won’t shut up about it). So what? I’d still rather live in Oz.

    Anyway, best comment I heard was from a disgruntled Aussie who said “Yeah, well all you Pommies are good for is sports where you’re ditting down”. Well done that Antipodean gentleman!

    Long may the comedy rivalry continue!


  27. #27 John S. Wilkins
    August 25, 2008

    Louis, congratulations! No, I really mean it. It only took you three times as big a population to beat the Australians and I am sure you will all be very happy to know that one Australian is now worth a little bit less than three UKains…

    [Ain’t tribalism fun?]

  28. #28 Thony C.
    August 25, 2008

    You know it kind of gives me a warm feeling to see our ex-convicts doing so well in all the sports we taught them. Kind of shows that they wer’n’t so bad after all.

    [Yer tribalism is real fun!]

  29. #29 Louis
    August 25, 2008

    You forgot to mention the big budget we have. Never forget the big budget. Doesn’t matter whether it’s real or not, we’ve learned that from la Fuller. You chaps might not have got value for money this year, but surely the fact that we Poms obliterated the equivalent of the national debt of Liberia on some people flailing up and down various tracks/courses.

    I think at the end of the day what’s important is that sport is the winner.

    [Tribalism IS fun, especially during the rugby season, but the Hallmark Card approach to philosophical and metaphysical musing is even more fun. After all these are both activities which humans engage in freely. One after the other ‘twould appear: kill some folks, write bad poetry about it afterwards]


    P.S. The typo in the previous post was clearly the work of some Australian conspiracy.* The word should have been “sitting” not “ditting”.

    *All the best things are blamed on conspiracies. After all that’s how Teh evilution is sustained. Right? Can I get an Amen? Oh and congrats on the result against the Boks.

  30. #30 Louis
    August 25, 2008

    Egads I cannot type today. I blame the Russians for booting out of third place on the medal tables.

    After the words “tracks/courses” should appear the phrase “should be some consolation”. I hope that was implied anyway!

    TYPO (The Gdo of Clerical Errors) has smitten me once more.


  31. #31 HI
    August 25, 2008

    I read somewhere that Bahrain actively imported athletes from other countries. The guy who won a gold medal for Bahrain was from Morocco and had previously represented Morocco. I also saw a female runner representing Bahrain, who was originally from Ethiopia. So, I don’t think Bahrain is exactly a country successful at producing good athletes.

  32. #32 Steinn Sigurdsson
    August 25, 2008

    Hey, you missed Iceland in the overall medal count per capita.
    We’d be second to Jamaica

  33. #33 Moses
    August 25, 2008

    It’s cute. But since teams are limited in size, regardless of country population, small countries should generally do better in this type of analysis than large ones.

  34. #34 snaxalotl
    August 26, 2008

    I heard recently that GDP was the best predictor of medals, so I’m keen to see the tally in this context. The cube root thing is very interesting too. But most of all, I’m pleased to see that Australia does so well in the light of the obvious fact, which everybody knows, that the only medal worth a damn is gold. Ask the USA 2004 basketball team who use their bronzes as shims unter wonky table legs. I can’t believe how many times I see people naively adding total medals – this is like adding apples to mouldy apples. I’d accept 100, 10 and 1 point for gold, silver and bronze.

  35. #35 Thony C.
    August 26, 2008

    According to the BBC, this morning, your wonderful Mr Rudd is planning on throwing vast amounts of extra cash at Aussie sport in order that you don’t get beaten again by the winnging poms in London in 2012!

  36. #36 John S. Wilkins
    August 26, 2008

    Whinging. It’s spelled whinging. A portmanteau of “whine” and “cringe”.

    We obviously have so much money that we can spend it on sports, but not on university staff…

  37. #37 Thony C.
    August 26, 2008

    Come off it Wilkins! Everbody knows that finding out whose drugs lets him run faster than anybody else or whose drugs lets him throw a lump of metal further than anybody else is much more important than teaching people how to think!

  38. #38 wazza
    August 28, 2008

    Actually, whinge is an old english word, if I remember correctly, that migrated to Australia and then went back to the UK, having died out there in the meantime, making people think the Aussies had actually invented something…

    Note who’s two places higher than them, too


  39. #39 Philip M.
    September 24, 2008


    It’s been a while since I enjoyed reading the comments just as much as the post itself. Cheers to all you smart lot.

    Oh, and yes, I’d really like to see that analyses of efrique.

    I am not sure that small countries fare better, as the pool of which good athletes can be selected from is much smaller. But then you got Bahrain…

    My expectation is that the fraction of good athletes in a population is a constant independent of nationality, thus countries with larger population should have an advantage. Especially when team size is more or less the same for each country.

    I guess the more money you can throw at these athletes the more medals you get, thus GDP should IMHO be included in the analysis.

    Thony C., drugs that let you run faster? If those existed all athletes would use them in a situation where their career and future income depend on their success. Oh wait, never mind.

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