Which country really wins the Olympics?

Contents

Gold medals per population and GDP since 1996

RankCountry nameCountryGoldsGolds per personGolds per GDP
USA USA2840.8613.649
China CHN2260.15715.208
Russia RUS1691.158115.431
Great Britain GBR1181.73844.726
Germany DEU1001.19426.451
Australia AUS893.4966.682
France FRA771.1830.179
Italy ITA701.15837.874
South Korea KOR651.26840.963
Japan JPN790.62516.088
Cuba CUB494.326536.398
Hungary HUN484.969320.13
Netherlands NLD512.97657.540
Ukraine UKR350.8246.046
Romania ROU311.611124.686
Spain ESP300.64224.049
Poland POL290.76649.923
Brazil BRA280.13220.531
New Zealand NZL275.599139.502
Canada CAN250.66215.622
Jamaica JAM227.4301,546.247
Kenya KEN220.409217.718
Greece GRC191.82397.749
Iran IRN200.23832.751
Ethiopia ETH170.148177.847
Norway NOR203.68954.587
Czech Republic CZE191.77478.521
Kazakhstan KAZ150.79990.509
Denmark DNK172.93550.055
Sweden SWE161.58430.243
Switzerland CHE161.84922.603
Turkey TUR150.17823.097
Belarus BLR131.376225.272
Bulgaria BGR142.015206.134
Croatia HRV143.41246.618
North Korea PRK100.388555.556
South Africa ZAF110.18538.926
Slovakia SVK101.83298.143
Thailand THA100.14319.639
Argentina ARG80.17720.901
Georgia GEO102.507612.895
Azerbaijan AZE70.69168.003
Belgium BEL100.86319.864
Uzbekistan UZB100.299167.305
Bahamas BHS717.801605.536
Colombia COL50.09818.873
Indonesia IDN60.0225.511
Lithuania LTU51.83790.803
Slovenia SVN83.848154.434
Taiwan TWN70.29411.014
Algeria DZA40.09127.151
Austria AUT50.55511.550
Finland FIN40.72214.933
Ireland IRL61.21515.035
Mexico MEX40.0313.845
Cameroon CMR30.11376.852
Dominican Republic DMA30.27738.519
Latvia LVA42.121121.157
Nigeria NGA30.0156.772
Serbia SRB60.687115.387
Tunisia TUN40.338101.973
Armenia ARM20.675156.091
Bahrain BHR21.17557.763
Chile CHL20.1058.149
Estonia EST32.26298.464
Mongolia MNG20.61149.421
Morocco MAR30.08126.733
Portugal PRT20.1969.021
Trinidad and Tobago TTO21.42988.036
Zimbabwe ZWE20.135142.837
Burundi BDI10.084319.387
Costa Rica CRI10.19616.766
Ecuador ECU30.17032.231
Egypt EGY20.025.527
Fiji FJI22.231508.647
Grenada GRD18.887931.099
Hong Kong HKG20.2675.860
India IND20.0010.771
Israel ISR30.3477.824
Ivory Coast CIV10.03816.26
Jordan JOR10.09823.469
Kosovo KOS31.657400.855
Mozambique MOZ10.03268.695
Panama PAN10.23216.588
Puerto Rico PRI20.69921.284
Singapore SGP10.1712.963
Syria SYR10.05715.385
Tajikistan TJK10.105126.614
Uganda UGA30.06679.506
United Arab Emirates ARE10.1012.826
Venezuela VEN20.0741.144
Vietnam VNM10.012.936
Golds per person = Number of golds ÷ population (millions)

Golds per GDP = Number of golds ÷ GDP (trillions)  

Summer Olympic medal tables often look familiar – USA, China, Great Britain, Russia and Australia usually dominate. But that doesn’t show the whole picture. These nations have larger populations and more money to spend than average.

To uncover the real Olympic champion, we worked out which countries have won the most gold medals per person and per national wealth since 1996. Click on golds per person and golds per gross domestic product (GDP) on the table above to get a better picture.

We start at Atlanta ’96 because that was the first summer Olympics without the USSR. The USSR were a huge medal winner so a time span both with and without them gives inconsistent data.

Jamaica are top dogs

The standout nation from our research is Jamaica. They rank number 1 for golds per GDP, with 1,546.247 golds achieved for each $1 trillion of GDP. For comparison the USA scores 13.6!

Jamaica’s 7.43 golds per million people stat is also impressive, with only 2 nations able to beat it. For comparison China scores 0.157.

This is in no small part down to their sprinting ability. Every gold medal won by the Jamaican Olympic team since 1996 has been on the track (100m, 110m hurdles, 200m and 400m). What makes this even more impressive is that Jamaica only really came to the party from 2004. In Atlanta 1996 and Sydney 2000 they won just 1 gold medal. So hats off to the sprinters, who have pushed their nation to dizzy Olympic heights!

Cuba gets second place

Cuba rank an impressive 6th for both golds per person and golds per GDP. The reason for this is combat sports. 22 of their 49 gold medals since 1996 have come in boxing, with each Olympics providing a minimum of 2 boxing golds. 13 gold medals have come from Judo and Wresting since 1996, meaning just over 70% of their overall triumphs have been in combat sports.

Boxing is a huge deal in Cuba. Of the 99,000 registered athletes in Cuba currently, 19,000 are boxers, with only 12 making the Olympic team.

North Korean flexing

Despite only having a GDP of $18 billion North Korea managed a monumental 10 golds. That gets them 5th place in golds per GDP behind only Grenada, Jamaica, Georgia and Bahamas. While the nation is getting great value for money here, they’re not doing so well per person, ranking 52nd.

The North Korean’s perform admirably in weightlifting, winning 5 golds since Atlanta ’96. 3 of their triumphs have come in gymnastics, with the other 2 in wresting and judo. Clearly they are excelling in strength based events and reaping the rewards.

The recipe for their success is unknown. When their weightlifters were quizzed about their training methods back in 2014 they responded in cryptic fashion, with Om Yun Chol saying “I have a question for the journalists here, have you ever heard that an egg can break a stone?”. I have not heard that but I have heard of steroids.

Former Soviet strength

The USSR was an Olympic force to be reckoned with before its dissolution. However, their legacy remains alive within the former states. Since 1996, these 15 countries have won 274 gold medals combined, being most successful in wresting (51 golds) followed by gymnastics (34), athletics (33), and boxing (27). Russia won 61.6% of those.

Each former soviet state performs well in golds per GDP. In fact, 10 of the 15 countries rank in the top 30. Georgia performs best, ranked 3rd for golds per GDP and 13th for golds per person. 8 former Soviet states beat Russia itself in golds per GDP and 5 do so in golds per person.

New Zealand beats Australia

For gold medals per person New Zealand ranks 4th and Australia ranks 9th.

For golds per GDP New Zealand ranks 23rd, they highest of any major first world country. Meanwhile, Australia achieve almost half as many golds per GDP ranking 40th.

The sporting prowess of the 2 nations comes on the water. An amazing 68.1% of their combined gold medals since 1996 have come in water sports, with swimming being the most fruitful. Rowing is the next best with 16.38% of the 2 nation’s gold medal haul.

USA and China not so mighty after all

Anyone looking at the raw data for Olympic gold medals would assume China and The USA are performing admirably. However, our data suggests otherwise.

Ranking 75th (China) and 78th (USA) in golds per GDP proves the 2 powerhouses aren’t getting the best bang for their buck. The USA then ranks 37th in golds per person while China come a lowly 68th.

Substandard Subcontinent

By far the worst performing region by our metrics is the Indian Subcontinent – made up of;

  • India
  • Pakistan
  • Bangladesh
  • Sri Lanka
  • Nepal
  • Bhutan
  • The Maldives

Between these 7 countries only 2 gold medals were mustered since 1996. Both of these were won by India – Abhinav Bindra in shooting at Beijing 2008 and Neeraj Chopra in the javelin at Tokyo 2020.

Combined, the 7 nations have a population of 1.8 billion people so a haul of 2 gold medals seems pretty pitiful. As developing nations you would assume their athletes are not getting the funding needed, but that is why we measure golds per GDP, at which they do just as poorly.

As the Head of the Indian Olympic Association mentions below, families traditionally favor giving their children a good education over focusing on sport, with the possible exception of cricket. India and Pakistan can match anyone on the global cricketing stage. This suggest these countries could do better in the olympics if the desire was there.

Sport has always taken a back seat vis a vis education

Narayana Ramachandran, Head of the Indian Olympic Association

3 comments

  1. Yajaira Malboeuf

    Thanks nice post.

  2. Carlos

    South American countries doing pretty bad here

  3. norman

    nice research. usain bolt had a pretty major effect for jamaica 😂

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