The Olympics are, to a large extent, rigged from the outset. The countries that have made regular appearances at the top of the medal standings at the last few Summer Olympics—the United States, Germany, France, and Great Britain—also happen to be among the world’s giants in economic power. It would seem that wealthy countries that have resources to spare toward the development of their athletes produce much greater hauls of gold, silver, and bronze than do nations that wield lesser economic clout.
However, there’s nothing particularly interesting about the “Goliath bludgeons David” narrative, so let’s focus on David’s more endearing characteristics: he doesn’t have much to work with, but he tries hard, and every so often, he enjoys a dramatic morsel of success.
So it is with many of the nations that compete in the Olympics. They send fewer athletes with less access to world-class training and facilities than the familiar characters at the top of the medal standings, but occasionally, they produce a transcendent talent, like Jamaica’s Usain Bolt, or establish long-term dominance in a particular discipline, like Kenya in long-distance running.
To find out who does the most with the least, I took the official medal count from the last three Summer Olympics—Beijing in 2008, Athens in 2004, and Sydney in 2000—and adjusted it for each country’s GDP per capita in each of the three Olympic years. The rankings, now measured in medals controlled for per capita GDP (in 2011 USD), look very different from the traditional standings.
(The weights for per capita GDP are in billions of dollars per million citizens, which amounts to thousands of dollars per person. I divided the countries’ total medal counts by this figure to get the weighted medal score.)
One might think that countries with large raw populations have an advantage simply by virtue of the law of large numbers: with more people living within a country’s borders comes a greater chance that one or two of them will possess unique athletic ability.
But population doesn’t mean nearly as much without the ability to finance and foster its latent talent. India, a nation of over a billion people, has enjoyed little Olympic glory, which may be because many of its people are entrenched in poverty (and cricket isn’t an Olympic sport).
The counterexamples to India, however, are the successes of China and Russia, countries that rank 88th and 52nd, respectively, in GDP per capita, yet regularly enjoy places at the top of the medal standings. For better or worse, both of these nations have made Olympic success a priority, perhaps at the expense of more pragmatic allocations of those resources. They use their capital to find the outliers within their vast populations and give them the chance to shine on the international stage alongside their more privileged peers.
Despite having relatively low GDP per capita figures, both nations have enormous productive capacity, ranking among the highest in the world in raw GDP. In fact, in correlating both raw GDP and population with total medal count in separate tests, I found that the relationship between GDP and medal count was consistently much stronger (for the last three Summer Olympics, average correlation coefficient: 0.71) than the relationship between population and medal count (average correlation coefficient: 0.37). Of course, to some extent, levels of GDP and population go hand in hand—large countries are likelier to produce more economic output by virtue of their larger labor supplies—but the preceding analysis does suggest that national output is a better predictor of Olympic success than the size of the pool of athletes from which a country can pick. Even with a population over one billion, India is only ninth in raw GDP.
A love of sport is not unique to places like the United States, China, and Germany, but as these nations begin their inevitable ascents of the medal podium over the next few weeks, consider that there are larger forces at play behind the athletes’ individual feats. Just like life, the Olympics are not particularly fair. National differences in economic output, culture, and even geography, greatly affect the ultimate results of the Games, something to keep in mind each of the many times we hear the strains of ol’ Francis Scott Key.
The author is solely responsible for the content.
He has also authored or made contributions to many books, including the Sports Illustrateds 100 Fenway: A Fascinating First Century.
Now living in Marblehead, hes focusing his attention on the Boston sports scene, specifically delving into the numbers affecting the Red Sox, Patriots, Celtics and Bruins, with the goal of informing and entertaining real fans. You can follow him on Twitter at @SabinoSports.