Olympic Medal Count by Population and GDP

by Stubborn Mule on 22 August 2008 · 50 comments

Now that the swimming is over, Australia is likely to see its rankings in the Olympic medal tally start to fall. To feel better about this situation, people like to start pointing out that we still look pretty good for a small country and it’s certainly true that of the countries currently in the medal tally (as at 22 August 2008), we rank only 36th in terms of population. Ever since I blogged about the data-sharing site  Swivel, I have been regularly updating a data-set with the medal tally. So, it was a simple matter to add in population as well. The chart below provides a high-level overview of the medal results by population. It shows both the total number of medals won and the gold medals. The further a country sits in this chart above a 45 degree line, the better it is doing by population.

Total Medals (blue) and Gold medals by Population

So Australia’s performance certainly looks good on this basis. On the other hand, China’s large medal haul doesn’t look too good and India’s performance looks terrible. However, many of the smaller countries are lost in the cluster of points in the bottom corner, so here is a chart of the top 25 countries in terms of score per million population (score is calculated as 3 points for a gold medal, 2 points for silver and 1 for bronze). Jamaica tops the rank, but we come in a respectable sixth place. Some Australians may, however, be disappointed to see New Zealand pip us into fourth place.

Of course, looking at performance by population does not take into account the fact that Australia spends a lot of money on sport, especially through funding the Australian Institute of Sport. Unfortunately, digging up figures on expenditure on sport around the world would be rather tricky, so I’ve chosen Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a rather crude proxy. All the GDP figures are in US dollars. Looking at medals on this basis, China’s efforts now look far better than the USA which is a standout under-performer. India too has retreated back into the dot cluster. At first glance, Australia’s results still appear quite respectable.

Total Medals (blue) and Gold medals by GDP

The chart below shows the top 25 countries in terms of score per US trillion dollars of GDP.

Zimbabwe comes out on top, reflecting more than anything else the collapse of their economy under Mugabe’s rule. Jamaica is not far behind in second place and Mongolia takes the bronze. Australians may be disappointed to see New Zealand scrape into the top 25 while we do not: we are near the back of the pack in 58th place (although we do look rather better only considering gold medals by GDP).

I also found an interesting blog post on the +plus site that looks at modelling medals in terms of both population and GDP as well as the boosting effect of being the host country. Perhaps when the games have finished, I will run this model on the final medal tally.

All the data used here is available on Swivel. I was intrigued to discover that, within hours of posting the data, someone had featured the data in a chart on Youcalc, yet another data-exploration site which I had not previously been aware of. Here is a the Youcalc chart, which shows medals by population or GDP and is more interactive than Swivel charts (although the units for GDP are not correct and should read “trillion” not “million”).

UPDATE: Thanks to Martin English for the pointer to the LA Times “Medals per Capita (MPC) blog”, and in breaking news, the Bahamas are now back at the top of the MPC ranking. Also, Australia is now ahead of New Zealand in medals per capita!

ANOTHER UPDATE: YouCalc chart changed to trillions.

YET ANOTHER UPDATE: Jamaica is now back on top in the MPC rankings. A Silver in the Men’s 4 x 400m relay has shot the Bahamas back to the lead in the MPC stakes.

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{ 39 comments… read them below or add one }

1 4fthawaiian August 22, 2008 at 1:39 pm

You’re the new god of data mashups! Great post :)

2 martin english August 22, 2008 at 2:49 pm

The LA Times is doing a daily blog on medals per capita http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/olympics_blog/medals_per_capita/index.html

3 stubbornmule August 22, 2008 at 5:21 pm

@4fthawaiian: Thanks for the accolades…I’ll try to continue to earn the title!

@martin: Interesting link to the LA Times! I’ll add it into the post. I see that the Bahamas have now leapt to the lead in the Medals per Capita (MPC) stakes…I’ll have to update my charts later tonight!

4 Steve August 22, 2008 at 6:24 pm

Did you notice the medal tallies shown in the main US newspapers (LA Times, NY Times, Boston Globe and Washington Post) all rank countries by total medals, rather than by gold medals? I wonder why…

5 Søren August 22, 2008 at 10:20 pm

Hi Sean

You are right about the billion/trillion dollar error.

I have fixed it and published a new version if you want to update the widget in your post.

Fixed widget: http://www.youcalc.com/apps/1219403616554

6 stubbornmule August 22, 2008 at 10:40 pm

@Steve: According to this Olypmic site, the IOC don’t endorse any particular ranking. The Chinese Olympic site (my source for the medal tally) ranks by gold not score, but I do like the score method myself.

7 stubbornmule August 22, 2008 at 10:41 pm

@Søren: thanks for dropping by! Your YouCalc widget is a great way to visualise my data.

8 Matt Parsons August 23, 2008 at 8:33 am

Am loving your sensible analytic take on these important matters. More grist for the mill given the way the Poms have started to carry on. Ever thought about correlating historic data and ascertaining the greatest Olympic nation of all time? Would be fascinating to run the numbers.

9 stubbornmule August 23, 2008 at 11:22 am

Well, Jamaica has won another medal and knocked the Bahamas back off the top MPC spot.

10 stubbornmule August 24, 2008 at 8:22 am

A Silver in the Men’s 4 x 400m relay has shot the Bahamas back to the lead in the MPC stakes. The LA Times MPC blog has not yet picked up on this, but I’m sure they’ll be very excited!

11 stubbornmule August 24, 2008 at 10:38 am

Just posted an update of the ranking charts. Australia has pulled ahead of New Zealand in the MPC stakes and I have declared an overall winner.

12 Timbo August 24, 2008 at 11:05 am


This will all get a lot easier when the pesky games finish and people stop winning medals!

Some of us Poms are crowing we’re crying about how we’re going to get stung for the 9 Billion the next games are going to cost us!

Couldn’t you take them back…..please??

13 stubbornmule August 24, 2008 at 2:40 pm

@Timbo: sounds like a familiar story. There was a lot of criticism about the cost in the lead-up to the Sydney Olympics in 2000, although it all seemed to stop once the Games actually started. Then people started to get on the “best Games ever” band-wagon,

14 Bill S August 25, 2008 at 3:33 am

I’m curious as to what the actual count of medals given out to athletes broken down by country would be. For example: for a 4 person relay there is one medal for each person in the relay but in the standard published medal counts everywhere you look it counts as just one medal. Any links to total medal counts? Anyone?

15 stubbornmule August 25, 2008 at 9:27 am

@Bill: While each athelete receives a medal, the group events only count as a single medal in the tallies. For example. have a look at this page for the Bahamas. The medal for the 4x400m relay only counted as one in their total tally of two medals.

16 Bill S August 25, 2008 at 10:04 am

I was trying to make it clear that I understood what the official line is on medal counts. Call me crazy, but just like some people think about economic stats vs medal count or population vs medal count, I am interested in the total number of medals actually given out to athletes. Just my own wacky curiousity I guess. I can’t believe I’m the only one thinking a gold medal in football is not equivalent to a gold medal in an individual event.

17 stubbornmule August 25, 2008 at 10:17 am

@Bill: ahh, I see…apologies for misreading your comment. Perhaps the count in the tally should be inversely proportional to the number of people in the team?

18 Nords August 25, 2008 at 1:11 pm

Stubborn one,

Another great post. To get another perspective on a country’s dominance rather than just pure medals won or medals per capita, is to look at the dispersion of medals won. That is to look at a country’s ability to win medals across different olympic disciplines.

19 Bill S August 25, 2008 at 2:35 pm

Ok, I did the total count just for the US and China and according to the official web site and with no corrections to their tally which seemed odd because some of the 4 man relays list 6 people. Who has the time to go and find all this data? This is all I’m doing. Anyways here are the total medals awarded to all athletes of each country: US 77-B 109-S 125-G China 57-B 54-S 73-G.

20 Jon Peltier August 25, 2008 at 11:27 pm

Bill –

The extras in the relays compete in earlier rounds, so the four finalists don’t all have to race in all heats. Only the four on the track or in the pool during the medal round get the medal. OTOH, I believe all members of a team for a field sport get a medal (i.e., there are six volleyball players on the court at once, but the subs also receive medals).

21 Ian Williams August 28, 2008 at 12:51 am

I am an Englishman living in the US and the contrast between the table in the US (order based on golds) and in the UK (order based on total medal count) is interesting. Always make the choice that makes your country closer to the top.
I have been calculating “medals per million” for a few olympic cycles and would like to point out that in 2004 the Bahamas again lead the way at 6.67 – what’s with these guy’s? Australia did a little better in 2004 with 2.46. Actually over the years it’s quite clear that, based on size, Australia is the winner – congratulations you lot!
Two last points. I think you have to quote at least a couple of decimal places when giving medals per million. Second, small countries are volatile using this measure, as a few outstanding performances really affects their standing, which makes the Bahamas feat quite remarkable.

22 stubbornmule August 28, 2008 at 8:20 am

@Ian: Thanks for the comments (and the overall award to Australia!).

Also, I agree with you about the decimal places. In my follow-up post I used two decimal places in my Swivel charts. Omce I’ve come to grips with YouCalc (Soren sent me the details on how he created the chart above which should help), I will have a go at changing it to two decimal places as well.

23 Ken Zimmern August 28, 2008 at 10:21 am

This is one of the only sites I found that calculated the Olympic medal count by population and GDP. You did a great job.

I am not surprised that Jamacia rated high on both charts. Caribbean islands generally do well in the Olympics because their athletes oftten train in the U.S.

Most Jamaican schools have an athletics program in the curriculum, so Jamaican children are into athletics at a young age. National athletic championships are incredibally popular in Jamaica and the athletes are normally competing to crowds of 20-25,000 people which is good preparation for major championships. Dominant athletes are normally picked for a competition where the best Jamaican schools and universities compete against the best American schools and universities.

Many Jamaican athletes chose to train in the United States to use the better facilities.

I’d be interested to see how the English speaking countries do as compared to non-English Speaking countries. I assume that English speaking countries have a higher ratio of success than non-English speaking nations. But I’d like to see if I’m right.

Where can I find a complete chart with all countries?

24 stubbornmule August 28, 2008 at 10:55 am

@Ken: I’m glad you liked the post. You can find all the the data over on Swivel. There are a few data sets, but the two key ones are:

For links to these and other data sets, you can visit my Swivel page.

25 Jack September 2, 2008 at 10:11 pm

If you are talking about Olympic medal vs population, then the number of athletes representing their country should also be based on the population of the country. For example, China can have 3500 athletes but Australia can have only 50 since no matter how many people in a country, there is only one team can participate sports such as basketball, football, etc. There is no more than one gold medal of such sports can be awarded to the country. Therefore Olympic medal vs population is meaningless and ridiculous. Unfortunately many people don’t have such basic common sense.

26 stubbornmule September 2, 2008 at 11:53 pm

@Jack: I agree that these limits do distort matters, but it doesn’t necessarily make population a completely irrelevant consideration. Even if the only event of the Olympics was a basketball, and each country could only submit one team, a country with a larger population would have a larger pool of potential players to draw upon and therefore, all other things being equal, would have a better chance of fielding a better team. Of course, not all other things are equal, for example Australia can spend significantly more on training athletes than a poorer country of a comparable size, which is why I also took GDP into account as an (admittedly crude) proxy for spending power on sport.

27 Jack September 3, 2008 at 2:26 am

Stubbornmule: If you think population is a major factor and China has larger pool of potential players, why China still has no achievement in track & field which hold largest amount of medals while Australia can gain so many gold medals in swim (even more in last game) which do not show any proportion to their population. I don’t think Chinese sports authority doesn’t pay attention or make no efforts on it. There are so many factors will affect a athlete to achieve good result such as training method, technology, coaches, management, psychology, mental, sprit, just name a few. Exaggerating certain factor does not seem to have any scientific evidence.

28 stubbornmule September 3, 2008 at 9:20 am

@Jack: I’d agree that there was nothing particularly scientific in my post: I simply presented the tallies without any analysis. However, there choice of population and GDP was not without some basis. In the post I included a link to another blog post in which the authors found that a regression based on both population and GDP at once provided a reasonable degree of explanatory power. They also pointed to another paper which was able to improve the results by combining population, GDP and additional factors which capture host nation advantage, whether the country had previously been part of a the Soviet bloc and whether the country had a planned economy. My intuition behind that is that money spent on sport has explanatory power but the data is hard to obtain. GDP provides an initial proxy, but it can be improved. For example, while North Korea’s GDP is fairly small, it would appear that they do spend a reasonable amount on sport. Including a factor for planned economies aims to capture this effect.

Both of the pieces of analysis referred to here pre-date the Beijing Olympics, so I have been planning to update the analysis with the results of the latest Games. Your comments are a good catalyst to do so, and I aim to publish the results soon.

29 stubbornmule September 3, 2008 at 9:25 am

One further point I should add is that when a country does spend money on sport, there are still budgeting decisions to be made as to how to spend that money to best effect, It is likely that different countries will focus on different sports. It should come as no surprise, for example, that a country like Australia with its beaches and strong swimming culture would concentrate more on swimming than other countries. Similarly, China has had a traditional focus on gymnastics. So while GDP can be expected to provide some predictive power for medals won, I would not expect those medals to be evenly distributed across events. Rather, I would expect to see clumping.

30 Jack September 3, 2008 at 11:41 pm

Stubbornmule: according to your last point, it sounds like money talk, not the population talk. What really annoying me is that many people really believe the number of gold medals a country has should be directly proportion to its population. They believe, taking Australia as an example which has 14 gold medals, is equivalent to 14 multiplied by the Chinese population, divided by the Australia population, ends up around 900 gold medals. This kind of calculation method is really ignorant. Of course, population is a factor, money is also a factor. But how do they correlate to the number of gold medals, should be ax^(1/n)+b or exp(1/n), or log(n^a+…) or something else…., no one really knows. As I said, there are a lot of factors and variables. It is not a simple solution. It is not a linear equation. It can be more than one solution. Without sophisticated modeling and research, talking something like this is just to fool people around and misleading (Please forgive what I said).

31 stubbornmule September 10, 2008 at 8:20 am

I have now started tracking the Paralympics medal tally in the same way (with apologies to Jack!).

32 Lazza May 21, 2011 at 8:45 pm

I’ve come to this discussion quite late, but wanted to point out that no-one has also considered the Winter Olympics. If the medal tallies from these were added to the “Summer” Olympics I am sure it would significantly alter the results ie improve radically the standing of Nordic and other other cold climate countries.

33 Terre June 18, 2012 at 5:24 am

Like the last poster suggested if you are going to call it Olympic Medal Count then surely the winter Olympics should be included. For instance Sweden is number 7 in total medal tally. Given that Sweden’s population is 9 million then they surely be up there among the top


34 Stubborn Mule June 18, 2012 at 7:47 am

Too much time living in the Australian sunshine I suppose, but I barely know what the Winter Olympics are. Fair point though!

35 Terre June 19, 2012 at 6:11 am

I still don’t know how the table presented here can be correct, in summer Olympics Sweden has 142 gold medals, Australia has 131. Sweden has 9 million people Australia has 22 million. How can Australia be ahead of Sweden even if we are using summer Olympics anyway? Btw, Australia has 5 winter Olympics gold medals.

36 Stubborn Mule June 19, 2012 at 7:27 am

Terre: it would have been more obvious back in 2008 when the post was put up, but the charts only refer to the results of the 2008 Summer Olympics, not all Olympics in total.

37 Matt June 20, 2012 at 10:19 pm

I’m looking forward to a revisit of this discussion in the next month. Any thoughts on how to improve the model?

38 Ryan July 31, 2012 at 10:42 pm

I love this take on the Olympics! It’s not really fair to look at the medal count without considering population or GDP.

If you are interested, I have created this visualization to track total medal count by country GDP throughout the London Games.

39 Matt August 9, 2012 at 7:03 pm

There was an interesting discussion on Quora about China’s success, but particularly the final paragraph of Andy Warwick’s answer may be relevant to your next analysis:

Is China really “less” successful than other countries because of the lower ratio of hits to misses, as a consequence of the sheer number of their athletes who are competing?

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