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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)

Passenger, you make an interesting point. what also is not in the spirit of the olympics is manipulating the programme schedule so that one rich country can view events in their self indulgent prime time slot.

Each hosting country should have a home ground advantage. This is what happens in any competition.

What also needs to be taken into account is how much money is spent on sport in each country. Australia spends a disgusting amount of money on sport but I bet the yanks spend the same proportion or more.

Another factor is the profile of sport in a country should also be considered. In Australia, we worship sports stars, making them Australian of the year etc. This certainly builds the support from the public.

There is probably a combined factor that means that cash and status together make a bigger impact than the parts alone.

I'm not sure what the point of this whole discussion is. Are we trying to figure out who the greatest country in the world is in terms of athletics? Are we trying to figure out who can do the most with a small amount of GDP? There are so many factors that play a part in the medal count that to try to account for all of them is impossible. For example, let's say a country of 1 million people with a GDP of $1 Billion and an Olympic budget of $0 recognizes that they have 1 person with freakish ability in shooting an air rifle. Let's say that this 1 person is a biilionaire who can afford to pay for his training and equipment by himself wth no help from the government. This tiny country can send this person to the Olympics as their only athlete. When that person wins a single medal, they will then have a ratio of 1 million people per medal which would put them at the top of this Medals Per Capita list. Doesn't that seem pretty silly?

Personally, I think those sort of questions don't really mean much. Let's not get caught up in arguments over whether my country is better than yours. Instead, let's just enjoy the high level of competition and appreciate that this sort of thing only happens once every 4 years.

No, No, No - you've all got it so wrong. Medal tallies are not the measure of how good an individual athlete is, nor how athletic a country is as a whole. The true measure is how hard they party over their gold medals, during and after the course of the Olympics. That is, a few weeks after these Olympics, the Yanks, the Chinese and the Aussies (I'm an Aussie) will have forgotten it all, but Armenia will most likely still be stunned and partying hard (and possibly still drunk)
All we need is some measure of how hard a nation has partied. Like the increase in cheep beer sold, the number of condoms sold, or the number of days missed from work, all per capita of course....

Actually the real reasons Australians top this list is because we are the best!

Mystery solved!

Aussie Aussie OI OI OI!

Surely the world has many more dire problems to face rather than waste time arguing about who's the best. Sports is fine and kudos to all the competitors in the Olympics (not just the winners), but think of global warming, financial melt-downs caused by greedy bankers, starving children, and the Olympics and especially such pompous articles become meaningless

As an Australian I can clearly state we do NOT conciously take into account the GDP or any other medal tally other than the raw one. Aussiies love to win and win, we will do at all cost.

Sports like Global Warming, Financial Meltdowning and child starving all being considered for future Olympics.

Go Earth, you little rippa!

Disclosure: As a Canadian I came across this page by looking for reasons why our medal count never approaches that of larger countries, and to see who does well per capita...

In reading the comments above, its disappointing to hear people be so proud and so sure of their personal supremacy over others based on the cumulative medal winnings of other people from their same country.

The total medal count is not a measure of which country is best / strongest / anything, other than just which country has won the most medals. It is interesting to look at the medals per capita, but that isn't necessarily a "better" measure, and doesn't really tell anything more. As others have stated, that number is still affected by the GNP, politics, climate, etc and would need to be further modified, also being imperfect...

In the end, there's no "better" stat to keep for national medals than simply the national medal count, keeping in mind that no country "wins" the olympics... if you think that, you're crazy. Give yourself, and your national pride a rest, and just cheer on your contrymen if you have to choose a favorite. If you really want to be proud of yourself, train up and make it to the olympics yourself!

The Rational Canadian is right (I'm an American). Total medals, medals per capita, medals per competitor are all just numbers thst are forgotten in about 1 or 2 months.

Besides, how many people on this board are Olympians: zero is a safe bet. So if your country ranks very high in any of the various medal counts, then that makes you look that much worse compared to your fellow country men and women!

I disagree with Te's posting (August 11, 2008 at 12:00 PM ). While it is true that each country can only nominate say 3 participants to compete for each event, the point of the article is that a country with a small population may only have a pool of 100 elite athletes to select their top 3, while a large country may have a pool of 100,000 to choose from. The odds are therefore stacked in favour of countries that can draw talent from a much wider pool.

I am Australian and have an issue with the differences in medal counting ie in the US total medals and all of equal value is incorrect ie gold should be worth more and other countries measure gold only which doesnt recognise the other medals. We should all agree a standard measure of gold =3 silver = 2 and bronze = 1 point. This sliding scale is the fairest. Also re population and GDP I think when you get to really small countries they could just get lucky with one medal and be considered the best sporting nation eg shooting or archery - how is this fair? There needs to be a cut off or reducing points regarding population and gdp as countries get smaller as its not really a fair picture

Anyway I think China, the US, Australia and South Korea are right up there this year. Of course Australia would win on nearly all of these adjuted counts but whos counting. he he

i am Australian and every year we hear about how good we are going in the medals per cap, and how bad we are going in the overall medals... Some say it is bogus... others just say we never really have a chance to get medals anywhere near the US casue we just dont have the population. This is true... as someone said above, if you have over 10x the amount of people to choose from on average you are giong to get better athletes. This is not to mention the fact aht in australia we have no runners at all... it is all in the swimming, and phelps has killed all the interest there.

The system has merit. But they need to come up with a system which benefits smaller countrys like the Australias and the Bahama's, while not making it impossible for the USA's of the world.

To Dicko:
"The odds are therefore stacked in favour of countries that can draw talent from a much wider pool." That depends on which odds you are talking about.

The odds of winning more total medals (Medals per Country) is greatly in favor of the country with a larger population. However, using Medals per Capita number, the smaller country is even more favored. Think about this:

Country has 100,000 people, 10 olympic caliber athelets and sends 5 (due to some atheletes in same event). Max medals per capita:1/2000

Country has 100,000,000 people, 10,000 olympic caliber athelets and sends 500 (due to some atheletes in same event). Max medal per capita:1/20000

Well, this article is cheeky, and I do like the idea of looking at the medal counts from different perspectives. Personally, I tend to root for the Aussies when the Americans don't have a shot at a medal. I don't know why, I guess I just like them for some reason. You have to remember that different countries place emphasis on different events, and the amount of money the government is willing to plunk down makes a huge difference too. Some countries will pour all their resources into their one athlete who has a chance to win something. For me, though, the true Olympics spirit comes down to two things: the heart to compete in the limelight and consistency. It doesn't matter which country you came from or how much support you have behind you: you still have to come through in the clutch. Yesterday I got goosebumps watching Rebecca Soni break a world swimming record in an event she wasn't expected to medal in. Pure guts. I cried (yes, I'm a bit weepy) when Nastia Luikin (in many ways a product more of the former USSR than the United States machine) clinched the gold over her heavily favored teammate. (Grace under pressure.) And my heart swelled with pride when Michael Phelps grabbed his 6th gold of these games. (Total consistency and never bending in the constant spotlight.) Who cares how many medals your country wins -- give me the goosebumps over medal counts any day.

>Personally, I tend to root for the Aussies when the Americans don't have a shot at a medal.

Its hard to resist jumping on the bandwagon.

You arent likely to be supporting the Estonia, Bahamas, Hong Kong and Chad, are you ?

And you can't bring yourself to support non-western non-english speaking countries.

But there is Australia, out of nowhere ,all the way from the arse end of the world, at third (or 4th?) position, population corrected or not :)

Oh well, you might also like to see the gold medal winners in the news sometimes, and the Australians seem to do that. Not just by stealing flags (Dawn Fraser), putting up and wearing the wrong flags , and falling asleep on the job (that rower), they put themselves out and about doing interviews in English, meeting English speaking celebrities (eg Phelps and Crawford) and generally having a good time.

I am an Armenian and I think there should be a very important note made about the athletes representing Armenia. From 25 athletes representing a country of 3,000,000 ( yea ! only 3 Mil ) 5 bronze have been received. 20 % of the athletes have won....That is a accomplishment that should be addressed. Of course due to economic and political conditions some of the athletes are competing for different countries and some of them even won gold and bronze
like Artur Ayvazian Gold for Ukraine or Armen Vardanyan Bronze for Ukraine

Needs to be updated. New Zealand - 4 million people and 5 medals (2 gold, 1 silver & 2 bronze). :-)

Clearly many contributors questioning an adjusted tally have not had a close hand experience with elite competitive sport. Anyone who has will testify that developing ability and achieving success requires the best equipment, access to facilities and travel to expose yourself to world best competition. As someone who has seen first hand the costs associated with remaining competitive in elite cycling I can assure you Rwanda will never get a medal in that sport - they need tar roads first!

However, to present medal success as simply inversely proportional to population is, as some have suggested, to diminish the success of very large nations and exaggerated the very small. Similar problems arise with simple approaches to using GDP.

What we really need is an index that takes into account real conditions that exist (UN Human Development Index) and sporting infrastructure. How many swimming pools, athletics tracks, etc. per capita? This would be a great PHD project.

Why bother? I love sport but sport is politics. Ever since Berlin 1936 this has been obvious to anyone who can look past their national parochialism. Disclosure: I am an Australian

I would like to see 3 rankings for inforrmation published in the press or noted on TV - a chart showing ranking by medals, medals by population and medals by GDP.

It would be interesting to see which low GDP and population countries are doing well and could be used as an educational tool. Many American children have no idea about the population or income levels of other countries.

A low population or GDP country cannot compete for the maximum number of medals - there are just not the resources and/or population to pull from.

Remember when it was the number of GOLDS that determined who led the medal table?

It seems the United States media has forgotten this convention and now lists Total Medals as the benchmark which coincidentally puts the USA at the top of the leader board.

Pity they didn't realise that it also marks their achievement as the country whose major medal achievement at the 2008 Olympics is coming THIRD, with twice as many BRONZE medals as any other country.

As i stated earlier no one country can claim they have won the Olympics. Maybe we (as countries) should compare ourselves how we went at the last games and view our own improvement (although sometimes we don't always improve) since we (as countries) first started competing in the Olympics. Stats can be viewed and skewed many different ways; we know this.

Just enjoy the bloody games!!!! Go Aussies and Poms


Actually, the much better analysis is to calculate medals per Government $ invested directly into developing olympic athletes. I'm afraid your Australia equation would place them near the bottom, as the Australian Government has invested heavily into national sponsorship (read this as Socialism) of olympians since preparatory activities for Syndey 2000 began. Of course, China, Russia, S Korea, Germay and GB all do the same. But the US doesnt, not a penny, so the United States would by far lead this category of evaluating the true spiriit of competetion and athletics.

Listen - your report is totally bogus, ok? Firstly, take your per capita idea - well, for your information its got a little flaw in it. When you look at the population of China for example, half those people are women - so they are not even allowed in the mens events. So there goes half of the per capita. Secondly of all, there are lots of children counted in that per capita number. Lots of them who don`t have arms. Lots w/o legs. Many without arms or legs. So put that in your pipe and smoke ot for a while, why don`t you? Also, thirdly, if populations matters so much why don`t you have more kids, like maybe a 100 or more? Then your tiny little country could compete with the FREE WORLD. Yeah, go FREE WORLD instead of the UNFREE WORLD - which really points to my third and final argument. If you come from the unfree world how can you even be counted in the per capita population? You can`t even make a decision if you are not free (it goes without saying, but for arguments sake, I`ll say it anyway). So, 3 billion unfree people probably, if they had a choice (which, again they don`t) then they would move to your precious micronesia or whereever you think they are so small and might, swamp the place and knock them off the stupid podium. So, just give it up, all right?

Seriously, all I want to know is; is there any other country that orders the medal tally by total medals rather than by gold, then silver, then bronze? If the Americans value silver and bronze so much, maybe Katie Hoff should carry the Flag at the closing ceremony?

I like the MPC method, as we are usually near the top... but we are also always at the top end of total medals to!!

you should combine the placings for both systems... we'd win that too!!

in conclusion, Australia = best sporting nation

maybe we should start calling all of our national champions world champions instead (oh wait, the yanks have beat us to it)



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