What would the medal table look like if the country’s population and wealth were taken into account?
The medal table at the Tokyo Olympics, Japan, was once again dominated by the largest countries such as the United States, which took first place. But what would the ranking look like if population and wealth were taken into account?
When it comes to the Olympics, there is a strong sense of déjà vu. Every four years, the same few countries win medals after the United States, China, Russia and Tokyo were no different.
The United States has won 113 medals in total, 39 of which are gold, more than any other country.
So what makes countries like the US dominate the rankings while others lag? Economists and data geeks have some theories.
“It’s still clear by standards that what matters is population, income level and the political system,” says David Forrest, an economist at the University of Liverpool, UK, who researches predictions for the Olympics.
Population matters, says Forrest, because the more athletes there are, the more likely a country is to produce real competitors.
“Obviously very few people who are born have the potential to become world-class athletes,” he says.
Let’s take a country like Luxembourg which has a population of 633,622. This small country, sandwiched between Belgium, France and Germany, sent 12 athletes to compete in seven sports and did not win medals. Meanwhile, the United States, which has the third largest population in the world (328 million) after China and India, has sent 613 athletes to compete in 35 sports and has won more medals than any other country.
Some countries outperform because of the size of their population.
However, the alternate ranking, which analyzes the number of medals won per million people, shows a different result.
In this scenario, the small European nation of San Marino, with a population of just over 33,000, emerges victorious, despite winning only three medals (one silver and two bronze). The United States didn’t even take the top 20, ranking 60th.
But population alone is not enough to ensure a country gets to the podium.
“If a country is so poor, it will not have the resources to turn that potential into a real ability to compete on the world stage,” says Forrest.
“They need to be able to take part in sports first. For example, might they have a great natural swimming ability waiting to develop? But there’s no point in not having swimming pools.”
When poorer nations win, they tend to win in low-cost sports like wrestling, for example, Forest notes, while richer nations excel in more expensive sports like horseback riding and sailing.
When looking at per capita GDP (the sum of a country’s wealth divided by its population), China and Russia (numbers two and three in the overall medal table) actually fared better than the United States. Under these alternative criteria, China comes in first, Russia in second, and Kenya in third.
The United States, which is usually the leader, lagged behind in 15th place.
cultural and political factors
There are cultural and political factors, too. Forrest argues that countries belonging to the Soviet Union (USSR) tend to gain an advantage, due to the strong sports infrastructure created by communist regimes.
The Commonwealth of Nations (an organization of 53 countries, mostly former British colonies) also tend to do better than expected compared to their size and wealth.
Forrest says he thinks it’s because Britain was a pioneer in developing the sport as we know it today, and took that enthusiasm to compete with them around the world.
Australia, which is often in the top ten on the overall medal table, is an excellent example.
In India, cricket is the national sport, but it is not played in the Olympics. India also tends to excel in hockey, which is played in the Olympics, but only yields a maximum of two medals, one for men and one for women. On the other hand, the sports practiced by an individual, such as gymnastics, swimming and athletics, can yield several sports for each athlete.
“In general, it’s not very good to invest in team sports,” Forrest says.
It’s these myriad factors that make predicting Olympic medals difficult, says Simon Gleave, head of sports analytics at data firm Neilsen Gracenote.
If we only used variables like population and per capita GDP, we would tend to underestimate some of the best performers in a country.
He says past performance is a much better indicator of who will do well? But it is still only a rough estimate.
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