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Medals Per Million

Olympics achievement on a per capita basis.

by Eric de Place

Forget the showdown between the United States and China, the real battle was between the Bahamas and Iceland.

Certainly nobody reported the Olympics that way, but isn't there something unfair about tallying medals without regard to population? China's athletes, drawn from a pool of 1.3 billion people, match up against American athletes from a pool about one-quarter as big. Though of course we Americans love to lionize our athletic prowess -- measured in total medals won -- against nations only a fraction of our size.

I mean, is it really fair to compare the medal count between, say, 300 million Americans and 30 million Canadians? Not hardly. In fact, the Olympics exemplify our tendency to measure the wrong thing.

When you factor in population, places like Germany and Great Britain don't matter nearly so much as places like Armenia and Mongolia. Or consider Jamaica, which boasts only 2.7 million souls but still managed to bring home 11 medals, including six golds. That means Jamaicans netted more than four medals for every million residents. None of the big powerhouse countries came even close to that mark. The United States, by contrast, captured only a single medal for every 3 million citizens.

I couldn't help myself. I crunched the per capita numbers for every country that won an Olympic medal in Beijing. Here are the top 20:


Who would have guessed that this is the roster of champions? (As it turns out, my colleague Clark would have. He reminds me that he wrote a post on this very subject four years ago! Sure, the topic isn't exactly relevant to this blog, it's just one of those measurement issues that tend to drive us a little bonkers.

Below the jump, the full standings (and more complete data) for every country that won a medal. Also, some caveats.

OK, OK, there should be a lot of caveats. Among them are these: Olympic qualification rules tend to give small countries a helping hand; and in the heat of a single meet there's no guarantee that the world's best athlete will win. Plus, in many sports there are restrictions on how many athletes can advance from each country. So there's a limitation on how many Chinese divers, American swimmers, or Jamaican sprinters can compete for a medal.

Plus, there's something a little weird about per capita success. For instance, even if China had won every single medal in every competition, it would still only have turned in an Ireland-level per capita performance. (Ireland ranked 29th by per capita standards.)

All population figures are for mid-2007 from the Population Reference Bureau, here. Medal results are from the official Beijing Oympics standings page.

This piece originally appear on the Sightline Institute's blog, The Daily Score.

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I saw this same thinking at Sightline earlier today, so I'll say here what I said there:

While I wholeheartedly agree that raw medals count is a fairly useless metric — and one we choose because it suits our own aspirations and strengths — I'd have to submit that medals per capita is equally (though differently) useless.

In order for a small country to compete on the raw medals count, it would have to win everything it entered and it would have to field just as many athletes as larger nations. Which is unlikely. For a large country to compete on the per-capita scale, the Olympic games themselves would have to be vastly larger in order for countries to field a number of athletes commensurate to their size. In other words, for the US to best the Bahamas on a per capita basis (6.67/MM) they would have to enter and medal in 2,001 events… China would have to enter and medal in 10,005 events.

Neither is achievable.

A more reasonable measurement of success would be significantly more difficult, as it would likely pit nations of similar populations or GDPs against each other in a ranking that would also measure some other factors such as number of athletes fielded and the like.

In the end, I think the best thing to do is to enjoy the Olympics in the spirit they're intended. Rooting for the glory of the sport first… our homeland or other demographic second (if at all). And letting all rivalries be friendly ones.

For reference:

Posted by: Silus Grok on 26 Aug 08



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