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The true Olympic gauge: Medals Per Capita Table


Everybody says the great medal-count derby of Beijing 2008 will boil down to China vs. the United States, but as usual, everybody’s wrong.

Neither China nor the United States has any chance at the top honor.
Oh, they’ll have their little scuffle in the lazy, uninformative, snobbish, egregious Medals Table all right. They’ll count up their raw numbers of medals and feign honor.

They just won’t even sniff contention in the diligent, rational, egalitarian, humble Medals Per Capita Table, the only table that reflects real national accomplishment. Refraining from the sloth of the horrendous Medals Table, the MPC Table actually sits down and does the math, with the help of that little calculator attainable from the bottom left corner of the laptop.

It divides national population by total medals, mindful of the inarguable fact that China, with 1.33 billion people, or the United States, with 303.8 million, should get more raw medals than, say, Australia, with 20.6 million.

Now, is either of those countries as studly as Australia?

Not a chance.

The Medals Per Capita Table first appeared -- to zero fanfare -- at Salt Lake City 2002, as a brainchild of myself and fellow sportswriter Laura Vecsey, with a lot more Vecsey than myself, to be frank about it.

It computed then that the Norwegians were made of the finest stuff on the Earth, an outcome that did not prompt a surge in lutefisk consumption only because people in general have no sense.

Germany and the United States got all chesty about their “first-place” 35 medals and “second-place” 34 medals, but they wrung them from populations so large they posted MPC quotients of a puny 2.3 million (Germany) and a laughable 8.3 million (United States).

Norway plucked 24 medals from merely 4.2 million people for a sterling MPC of 175,861, achieving athletic prowess even while clearly refusing to help overpopulate the Earth, a rare double.

Athens 2004 saw the brawny, hardy Australians lead much of the fortnight until a real frog-strangler of a finish. The Bahamas, with two medals and an MPC of 149,000, nudged Australia’s 49 medals and 406,000, and Cuba made a late bolt to third.

The United States placed 40th with an MPC of 2.8 million (not so bad for an also-ran), and China wound up 73rd with 20.6 million (cementing that 1.3 billion population as a certified hamstring).

Since that Olympiad, Serbia and Montenegro have separated, which is nothing less than ingenious MPC strategy. And the Olympic family in 2007 welcomed the Pacific island of Tuvalu, population 12,177. If any of the three Tuvaluan athletes in Beijing should snare a medal, well, let’s just say that would send a volcanic shudder rippling through the entire MPC Table.

Meantime, we’re underway in 2008, as Monday evening in Beijing brought a fresh “official” medal table, haphazardly done as ever, quite possibly the least telling statistical chart in sports.

The far more astute MPC Table looked as follows. Note the influence of the colossal women’s 10-meter air rifle and 10-meter air pistol, which brought bronze medals to Croatia and Georgia, respectively. Note the prowess of the entire Korean peninsula, with a special MPC shout-out to those dynastic South Korean female archers, possibly the coolest athletes extant.

1. Australia (5 medals) - 4,120,171
2. Croatia (1 medal) - 4,491,543
3. Georgia (1 medal) - 4,630,841
4. Czech Republic (2 medals) - 5,110,456
5. The Netherlands (3 medals) - 5,548,438
6. Cuba (2 medals) - 5,711,976
7. North Korea (4 medals) - 5,869,772
8. South Korea (8 medals) - 6,154,106
9. Italy (8 medals) - 7,268,165
10. Azerbaijan (1 medal) - 8,177,717

Side note: The laggard United States had 12 medals for 25,318,721, and the Lilliputian Chinese gamely had clawed for 14 medals but still looked stuck with 95,003,186.

-- Chuck Culpepper

Culpepper is a special contributor to The Times.

Photo: Park Sung-hyun of South Korea takes aim in the gold medal match against China in women's team archery on Sunday. Credit: Rondeau/Presse


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Comments (102)

Don't forget to include GDP as another factor. Regardless of how big the population of a certain country, if that country's population is struggling to even put food on the table, then attaining Gold is pretty low on the priority list. Lack of training and facilities will kill many country's medal chances if funding (private or public) is lacking or unattainable.

Unfortunately this doesn't take into account that Olympic representation is completely equal regardless of country size. Australia competes with China on an even playing field, in terms of how many swimmers they can train to have a shot at a medal. It doesn't matter if the US produces 250 Olympic medal capable track and field athletes. They can only send the top 3 to have a shot.

If Olympic participation slots were awarded per capita as well, China would devote many more resources towards capturing medals from those slots. The MPC vastly overemphasizes small countries and penalizes larger countries.

It seems kind of silly to me to include a country's total population into the equation; what does a country's population have to do with the athletes at the games? I think a better measure would be medals won divided by total olympic athletes for a country.

This bogus story would have credence if population played a role in determining how many athletes from a country could participate. No where does the author mention that the US gets the name number of athletes in individual events as any country. And the team sports have the same qualification requirements regardless of population.

I am tired of the "we all do well and all deserve trophies/medals regardless of the outcome" stuff that is becoming more accepted on the US school grounds. At least the Olympics tries to reward those who truly and amazingly excell.

Congrats to all medalists regardless of your country!!!

Full disclosure, I'm a New Zealander.

There are only 4 million of us so as soon as we win something (anything, please), we'll rocket to the top of this list.

But I agree that a better analysis would also adjust for wealth per head. It's much easier for Australia or NZ to do well with small but rich populations.

From your list Georgia and Azerbaijan deserve real kudos.

Go Kiwis

I really didn't read this entry because I want to know where one could score such adorable Winnie the Pooh archery vest like the Korean Olympian in the picture.

Counting inhabitants in the equation for sure makes sense, contrary to what fore-commenters say.

If you can send the best 3 swimmers from a population of 100,000 people, or the best 3 swimmers from a population of 100,000,000,000 people. Same trainers. Same methods. Who will -surely- always win?

Of course, the GNP and other social factors are decisive also. If we count that China wouldn't be so low on the scale, and probably USA will be a bit lower, the same as some Euro-zone countries (Germany, Netherlands, Italy, France....) and others (UK, Australia).

But still the GDP is not an awesome marker, think about Switzerland, Luxembourg, or any country where the GDP could be high but social differences are huge.

Also politics interfere. What about those athletes that were born overseas the flag they are defending? Some countries look for them, others accept them, others don't.

Finally, not al medals can be considered completely equal, as there are some disciplines much more hard (public knowledge, sponsors, etc.) for competing than others. And also, team victories should be considered over individuals.

So, the medals/inhabitants is clearly a nice idea, but it has to be refined a lot.


Your logic is trash. You really set yourself up on this one. Cheers to all nations in this olympics. But to said that it's pure per capita is BS. China, as you said, has 1.33 BILLION people, US has 303 MILLION. That's just over a mere 1/4 China's total population, yet the largest medal winning nation in history. Yes, I agree part of it is the fact that the US has the means and the mode. Don't, however, underestimate the determination and virtuousity of the American people. They are, after all, the melting-pot of the best in the world. That includes you.

How pompous of you to state that "as usual, everybody's wrong" to just look at total medals won, and not take into account YOUR flawed system of medals per capita. To make it anything more than one more lame and misleading statistic, a country such as China would need 65 times more athletes than Australia to really have a chance for a fair medals per capita comparison. That's not gonna happen.
Also, to say that nobody likes your genius method is "as usual" not 100% accurate either. It's not that nobody likes it, it's just that nobody cares.
Learn how to report something more meaningful with your time.

This seemed pretty tongue-in-cheek to me. There are obviously a number of reasons for dominance in the games, population and money do seem to lead to getting a good deal of medals. Maybe smaller countries should spend more time taking over other countries, so they have more land to fill with people, not just filling the land they already have, and win more medals.

Go Aussies.

GDP is important. HOW can a poor country afford to train sailors that require very expensive boats to train, how can a poor country train cyclists with an old metal framed mountain bike.

Get real, your a yank and are looking for any excuse when you see yourself not on top of the medal table.

I am from the UK, and this is an interesting little debate. I think the population does have its effect, but its no good on its own. Basically if we said for every 1000 people theres potentially 1 olympic competitor. Obviously the number of people to select from is greater its basic maths and the chance of find a great/historic athlete is higher. Simply put you have more to choose from and regularly produce great teams. Smaller countries can still produce great athletes it just might not be as quickly.

However it means nothing if that potential isnt Spotted, supported and developed. It is this sporting infrastructure that America seems to excel at. Therefore capitalising on its potential athletes.

Lets face it irrespective of all this anyway. anyone that gets to the olympics demands great respect irrespecive of whether they even get a medal or not.

Population adjusted medal tallying existed before 2002, a very brief google search will show you an article from the Globe and Mail newspaper from 1996 analysing the Atlanta games from this standpoint. A very heavily visited site offered a "medals per million" tally for the Sydney Olympics. You will also find an article by R Hugh Morton which was submitted to the peer-reviewed journal 'Statistics' in 2001. This paper outlines various allometric approaches to medal tallys (including medals per capita, medals by GDP, medals adjusted by points value, and a model that incorpates many adjustment measures).

Perhaps the authors should have been more careful in their fact-checking before claiming that the "...Medals Per Capita Table first appeared -- to zero fanfare - at Salt Lake City 2002, as a brainchild of myself and fellow sportswriter Laura Vecsey". I am sorry you got no fanfare, but you are also guilty of denying (stealing?) the fanfare of those who came to this idea before you.

As an unhappy side comment - the arguments on this page show the real problems we have with math education these days. if you think that taking the same number of people from different sized pools leads to a "level playing field" you need to go back to statistics class...

My country (Netherlands) is mentioned twice on the medal count list, with two different scores... The highest is the correct one by the way XD

We may cheer for our countries but the competition is set up to be unfair without population and GDP factored in. If we wish to promote the true spirit of athletics and world games, all contestants should show up and then be assigned teams by lottery not by country. And no national anthems and individuals would win for themselves not their country. If we want to go further, we could factor in genetics or perhaps handicap everyone in each competition with a compensatory sand bag to adjust weights to a norm, as in "Harrison Bergeron."

Would we watch? Would there be sponsors, TV coverage? Probably not ,which means the true spirit of the global Olympics is nationalism and commercialism. We apparently don't like to play for fun unless their are winners and losers.

The article makes sense MPC table should also be shown when showing the medals tables. I would imagine many people who have commented above are 'influenced' by a skewed patriotic perspective. Dare i say people from the U.S and not the Aussies and Norwegians. Oh yeah come on you Brits!

I too agree that a MPC table should be made available- i think it would be great to see the smaller countries (and those with smaller populations) stick it to the larger countries. I think it is fun to consider if Phelps raised in a war torn, economically week country- could still be as competitve as he is!! However i am well aware that there are many other factors involved in creating a " level" MPC which takes into account GDP etc. However it seems far too hard to appease all....therefore my position is that we leave things as they are i.e- the country with the most medals- tops the tables(but doesn't win- countries don't win the olympics as such) and the MPC can be a table on the side that offers a little fun.

Come on Poms and Aussies

OK! How did the founding fathers handle this? One house with equal representation for each state, one with representation proportionate to the state's population.

But here we have three delineators: gross count, count per capita, and count per capita GDP. Solution: Three medal tables, one for each of these measures, and a fourth ubertable that blends the three equally.

If I had to pick one of the models for fairness, I'd have to go with the GDP measure.

Go, every country, but mostly America!

As a true-blue Australian, all I can say is . . . if Australia is winning, the calculation method must be correct.

But seriously, an adjustment for GDP per capita should also be included. Go Azerbajan!

i would like to see a list of counrties with their population and how many athletes from that country are participating in the 2008 olympic games

Australians have always known this. The only problem is that I was under the impression that the charter of the games explicitly prohibits the tallying of medals thus making all comments irrelevant.

love it, brilliant
aussies pulling amazing athletes from a mere 20 million
can swim ;)

why not Medals per Athlete? China, the US, they send hundred of athletes, and certainly have a much better chance of scoring golds than a country that sends only 3.

At the end of the day, competitors need to meet a certain time/weight/whatever to get to the games. Say for eg that the 100m time is 10.5 seconds. The USA might get 30 athletes who beat that time, but they know realisticly that only 5 might have a change to win a medal and as there are only 3 medals up for grabs, it doesn't make sense to send 30. I agree GDP does come into it a certain extent, but at the end of the day, MPC is a relatively good measure.

In saying that, all but a couple of Australia's medals so far have come from Queensland. We have a population of 4.2 million, so at the moment, we are better than Australia with a medal per every 400,000 people or so. We should ditch the other states and just have a Queensland team!



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