Best sporting nation?

by Chris Bertram on September 2, 2008

Obviously, this shouldn’t be taken too, indeed at all, seriously, but I did a little playing around to try to discover which nation did best at the Olympics. I’m told (or at least, I read in the _Times_ the other day) that some US commentators favour an assessment based on total medals won divided by population. Well they would, wouldn’t they? But obviously, some medals are worth more than others and you want to take some account of relative economic development. So here’s what I did: I assigned 7 points for gold, 3 for silver and 1 for bronze and then divided by Gross National Income in $billion (PPP adjusted) as given by the Nationmaster site. GNI is going to vary positively by population and by economic developement, thereby capturing both relevant facts. The GNI figures are probably not completely accurate, and I had to plug in a figure for Cuba. I also discarded all nations that scored less than 50 points (there’s a pretty big an convenient gap below that score). The result is in the table below. So well done Jamaica, and, among the OECD countries, Australia.



Alex Gregory 09.02.08 at 6:49 am

The BBC has a nice list of alternative medals tables:


riffle 09.02.08 at 7:10 am

I appreciate all your calculations and numbery thingies, but I still feel that my nation is the best.

And that opinion is unassailable.


Alan 09.02.08 at 8:10 am

Australia does best among the OECD countries because it combines the advantages of a high wealth and lots of leisure time with a Stalinist government-funded hothouse for promising athletes.


John Quiggin 09.02.08 at 8:16 am

We owe more to Stasiland than to Stalin, Alan. We bought a large part of their sporting establishment straight after the Wall fell.


Paul 09.02.08 at 9:12 am

Australia and England have both made it pretty clear that a nation can climb the medal table pretty effectively by deciding to throw gobs of money at elite sport.

I’d be interested to see a league table handicapped for expenditure rather than national wealth.


Lex 09.02.08 at 10:02 am

It should be noted that the UK, while universally regarded, even by its own media, as a pile of crappy crap full of fat useless bastards who couldn’t win a tug-of-war with a drunken midget, did, in fact, come fourth. I, personally, consider this far more remarkable than anything which could be said on the question of Australia, a country which is supposed to be good at this sort of thing.


Zamfir 09.02.08 at 10:37 am

What I think would be most revealing is comparing the results with the money spent on supporting olympic level sporters. Not the money spent on sports in general, as that would probably correlate heavily with sports activity in the population, but just the money available for full-time athletes. Perhaps even better to take the money spent during the last 8 years or so, as there is probably a lapse between spending and results.

There is definitely a suggestion that medals can be bought, as witnessed by countries (China, Australia, GB) that see their scores increase when they start investing for their own olympics.

I would be interested how much a medal costs, in general. And I wonder how much room there will be left for other effects, even a large population to pick from. Australia does suggest that this is not really relevant.


ejh 09.02.08 at 10:50 am

It should be noted that the UK, while universally regarded, even by its own media, as a pile of crappy crap full of fat useless bastards who couldn’t win a tug-of-war with a drunken midget, did, in fact, come fourth

It should also be noted that there’s not really supposed to be a medal table at all: and that for this reason, no national team actually came anywhere.


Matt 09.02.08 at 11:12 am

I find it interesting that if you count up the former Soviet Union they still end up dominating the medal charts. This is so even if you figure in things like the fact that Ukraine apparently imported about 90% of its equestrian team from Austria this year. The 2nd-rate (I’d guess) Austro-Ukranians were still not good enough to win any equestrian medals so it didn’t throw of the count.


Lex 09.02.08 at 11:35 am

@8: how long I wonder before it all ends up like soccer – strange billionaires with shady pasts from country X importing expensive talent from countries Y and Z to prop up a team based in country Q that might as well be on the moon for all the relation it has to what happens on the pitch…? And all a tax-dodge, of course.


Zamfir 09.02.08 at 11:41 am

Matt, I saw a comparable statistic showing how the EU would totally rule the Olymics if it were to send one team, but this is too simple. There are limits to the amount of contestants a single country can sent, so groups of countries will score better than they would as one country.

Team entries are of course the clearest example. Imagine the US could sent a basketball team from every time zone.


John Quiggin 09.02.08 at 12:01 pm

Australia started buying medals when we did exceptionally badly in (I think) Montreal in competition with Eastern bloc countries and so on. We convinced ourselves then that we were just levelling the playing field (that is, restoring our natural advantages). But the fact that the UK has been so successful in such a short time, simply by outspending us, might change our view.


almostinfamous 09.02.08 at 12:16 pm

as an Indian, I am proud to say that by all these measures, India is probably the worst nation in the list.


John Emerson 09.02.08 at 1:02 pm

Almostinfamous, that was the Nobelist Joseph Brodsky’s standard: the worse a nation was in sport, the more he admired it. It was his way of digging at the Soviet bloc and the U.S. simultaneously.

Tellingly, Chris left out Mongolia, which has no GNI at all but won four medals. Laziness, sure, but obviously more than that.


Chris Bertram 09.02.08 at 1:18 pm

_Tellingly, Chris left out Mongolia, which has no GNI at all but won four medals. Laziness, sure, but obviously more than that._

Like I said in the post, I left out all nations that scored fewer than 50 medal points on my system.


mollymooly 09.02.08 at 1:22 pm

Interesting Irish Times report on Ireland’s Olympic spending since Athens.

* boxing: €2.1m for 3 medals
* track and field: €3.1m for sixth place in a walking race
* equestrian: €2.1m for a doped horse. Different from the horse doped in 2004. And the mare doped in 1996.

General consensus in Ireland: “Wasn’t it great about the medals? Pity it was in boxing.”


sonzai 09.02.08 at 1:56 pm

As a Canadian, I just have to ask: is this just counting the Summer Games, or did you include Winter as well?


Cryptic Ned 09.02.08 at 2:18 pm

It should be noted that the UK, while universally regarded, even by its own media, as a pile of crappy crap full of fat useless bastards who couldn’t win a tug-of-war with a drunken midget, did, in fact, come fourth.

Almost entirely in obscure sports that are performed while sitting down, though.

As a Canadian, I just have to ask: is this just counting the Summer Games, or did you include Winter as well?

It’s only the 2008 olympics.


christine 09.02.08 at 2:54 pm

Oh thank goodness, at least someone vaguely objective on this admits Australia beat the Poms despite the silly medal tally rankings! Many thanks :)

More seriously, it was nice to see a wider range of countries doing well this time round. Any comparison with Athens? South Korea as most improved?


Lex 09.02.08 at 3:20 pm

Ah yes, that wonderful Antipodean talent for winning whilst losing.

You have to pronounce ‘winning’ with a long ‘i’, of course.

Only kidding folks, love you all, and what you’ve done with the place. When the water runs out, come on back, we’ve got plenty [wrings out ends of trouser-legs from wet bus-stop experience this morning].


Ano 09.02.08 at 3:39 pm

I wonder if the income portion of GNI is a good predictor of success. I can understand wanting to get at the resources available to train the athletes, but there are two reasons I think GNI doesn’t quite get it right:

1) High levels government support of olympic athletes (e.g. Cuba and China) probably matters a lot.

2) High per-capita income raises the opportunity cost of devoting your life to non-lucrative olympic sports such as water polo and fencing.

I think it would be better simply to divide by population, then acknowledge that you have to mentally adjust the results for government sponsorship, corporate sponsorship, and an abundance of households who can afford expensive private training for, say, figure skating training.


abb1 09.02.08 at 4:51 pm

You could normalize it by the average (total_points/world_gdp).


Tom Nichols 09.02.08 at 5:26 pm

I still am surprised that Pakistan, a country with a population exceeding 100 million, did not win a single medal. I think India, which has a population exceeding 1 billion, won 3, which is fewer than Lithuania or Mongolia.


Nordic Mousse 09.02.08 at 5:46 pm

As a Canadian, I just have to ask: is this just counting the Summer Games, or did you include Winter as well?

I have a table of winter & summer games, up to but not including Athens, showing the total number of medals, and world ranking according to medals per million inhabitants: it puts Canada in place 14 overall, ahead of the USA, slightly behind Britain, but well behind Australia

Does that sound any better?


John Emerson 09.02.08 at 6:37 pm

Chris is a bit touchy about his anti-Mongol tweaking of the stats. Why would that be?


notsneaky 09.02.08 at 7:35 pm

Chris, or Nordic Mousse,

Can you post a link to the “raw data” so we can monkey around with it? (I realize I could do it myself but figure, if it’s already there, might as well freeload)


notsneaky 09.02.08 at 7:40 pm

nm, got it though still’d like to see NM’s numbers which are alluded to.


notsneaky 09.02.08 at 8:02 pm

Also, you used GDP PPP, not GNI PPP. Sorry to be nit pickin’.


PreachyPreach 09.02.08 at 8:06 pm

JE> His great-great-great..-grandfather was at Liegnitz, I’d guess.


mollymooly 09.02.08 at 8:06 pm

The stupidest part in these tables is that each event’s medals are considered equal to all the others. Nobody gives a damn who wins the World Championships in archery, taekwondo, or trampolining; but when the same people do the same thing for an Olympic gold, it’s worth something. Chris Hoy got three gold medals for doing pretty much the same thing three times. How many different permutations can they come up with for cycling round a wooden track? Keirin came onto the program in 2000 because it’s popular with Japanese gamblers. Those velodromes are damn expensive and you need to put something on in them to justify the cost.


a 09.02.08 at 8:11 pm

How about counting by sport? Basketball had 2 gold medals, equestrian 6. So winning a gold medal in basketball seems to be worth more than winning one in equestrian.


novakant 09.02.08 at 8:53 pm

Australia and England have both made it pretty clear that a nation can climb the medal table pretty effectively by deciding to throw gobs of money at elite sport.

Hm, rowing, sailing, canoe/kayak, cycling and swimming are hardly elite sports. I know that people tend to think of sailing as an elite sport, but unless you’re talking about yacht racing, which is not part of the Olympics, that perception is simply wrong.


Chris Bertram 09.02.08 at 9:23 pm

Yes notsneaky, it was GDP and I misremembered. The figures are at

(And for Cuba, I just plugged in the figure from Slovenia, since other tables suggested they were roughly the same size. I think you can tell that I wasn’t knocking this together as a piece of serious research ….)


notsneaky 09.02.08 at 10:36 pm

I know, I know – just wanted to play around with it some.


mollymooly 09.02.08 at 10:41 pm

novakant : “rowing, sailing, canoe/kayak, cycling and swimming are hardly elite sports”
“elite” here in the sense of the competitive calibre of the athlete, not their social class. “elite sport” as opposed to “participatory sport”, “community sport”.


notsneaky 09.02.08 at 10:42 pm

Oh and since this is GDP, Mongolia does have one. It’s $5,127,000,000. And by Chris’ system it gets 20 medal points. Which gives it a score of 3.9, way up there with Jamaica.


dsquared 09.02.08 at 10:45 pm

I would question the points conversion factors – surely we should be using market values of the medals based on metal content, which would score a gold as roughly 1500 bronzes and a silver as about 60.


Gdr 09.02.08 at 11:31 pm

Olympic gold medals are made of silver (and jade, in Beijing) plated with 6 grams of 24-carat gold. But if you’re going by market value, you should look at the actual market value of the medals, not their scrap value.


Righteous Bubba 09.02.08 at 11:35 pm

Shouldn’t number of entrants factor into it somewhere? A medal should be worth less if fewer individuals or teams compete in the sport.


vivian 09.03.08 at 12:43 am

Hey DSquared, are you going to formalize the model and impute values for Wales (Scotland, NI) anytime soon? Or extend to the Commonwealth and include a term for #years since independence, or kilos of marmite per capita or something?


Canadian 09.03.08 at 12:55 am

The literacy rate of a country depends on the availability of books, teachers, absence of war, no famine, good child health care, gender equality, etc.. So estimate the literacy rate across countries using these factors and celebrate those countries, which in spite of poverty, famine, gender inequality, war and disease have higher literacy than would be predicted by the equation. Many poor unfortunate countries will rank high by this metric and we can celebrate how efficient they are in producing literacy.


John Quiggin 09.03.08 at 4:21 am

#13 It is indeed a tribute to the good sense of policymakers in India that they spend nothing on elite sports and therefore win almost no medals. Mind you, I’m confident that, given the rise of a large and cricket-obsessed middle/wealthy class India will soon move to a position of near-permanent dominance in cricket on the basis of an ability to outspend everyone else.


Nordic Mousse 09.03.08 at 4:52 am


Can you post a link to the “raw data” so we can monkey around with it?

Sure. This isn’t the table I referred to, and doesn’t have rankings, but it’s enough to show differences

A fun metric is to show the number of medals per million of population – for example: look at Hungary’s 10 million population and 464 medals and compare it with the USA’s 300 million population but “only” 2514 medals


Zamfir 09.03.08 at 9:14 am

Nordic Mousse, dividing by population has 2 downsides:

the first is the same as adding the former Soviet Union or the EU together: Large countries are “bandwidth constrained”, not “memory constrained”. They could sent more potential medal candidates per sport, but they are just not allowed by the rules.

The second is selection bias: if you were to look at US states and picked one with loads of medals per inhabitant, it would score much higher than the entire US.

And don’t forget all those medals Hungary won in the Austro-Hungarian empire days :-)

That said, I am all in favour of lists that irritate the USAians, but this year the standard list already has that role…


derrida derider 09.03.08 at 9:56 am

Yep, John’s right about cricket – we Aussies are only upset about that because we’ve enjoyed our own short period of dominance and the Indians are going to take it from us by fair means or foul (judging by last summer’s events).

But given our buying of Olympic medals, we’ve no right to complain. A nice cross-country econometric study should be able to get a nice estimate of the marginal cost of a medal.


John Emerson 09.03.08 at 2:03 pm

The very concept of “GDP” is alien to the Mongols. Notsneaky is being Eurocentric.


abb1 09.03.08 at 3:27 pm

When you were living on trees the Mongols already knew what GDP is.


Dave 09.03.08 at 3:36 pm

Genghis’s Dynamic Pursuits?


almostinfamous 09.03.08 at 4:07 pm

@John #42
true that! if only cricket were in the world cup, we would see most indians actually care about sportspeople. for all the hype, i wouldn’t mind betting that Abhinav Bindra’s name, now in the history books, will stay only there. we still hear stories of past olympic medallists in hockey, etc. are living lives of poverty…

@derrida derider #45:
aussie test dominance seems set to continue for a while longer (remember india still lost that series), though the competition overall in the shorter versions has gotten tougher and more unpredictable.


Nordic Mousse 09.03.08 at 7:22 pm


dividing by population has 2 downsides

At least two, I should think; but I said it was a “fun metric”, so what the heck

On the other hand, there are some clean comparisons you really can make. If you object to Hungary’s magnificent haul, then how about Sweden’s even better result of 593 medals with a smaller population than Hungary’s; or Finland’s 450 with a much smaller population than Sweden’s – both outpoint the major countries by at least 7:1. So does Norway, for that matter, and Switzerland

Fortunately for all of us, Australia doesn’t do winter sport


Zamfir 09.03.08 at 8:57 pm

Nordic, it is my opinion that fun statistics should be treated with the uttermost gravity, to increase their amusement value to the maximum. Of course, the opposite applies to serious stats.


TJB 09.03.08 at 11:21 pm

You should use a more relvent measure—where do the atheletes actually live and train? You will find a huge number come out of USA programs both university and club level. Plus, using GNP is miss leading—the USA is significantly ahead of every other China=$1,200/person/year v. USA=$42,000/person/year–most of Europe is in the $20K range. Use population and look at were the people actually come from—big difference…this is only the Olympic sports…there is a universe of professional sports missing too


felix culpa 09.04.08 at 1:24 am

Zamfir, you obviously enjoy Solomonic insight. Applause.

Since the self-identified, no doubt real, Canadians have made no move, I as an ersatz Canadian will leap into the breach: I rejoice to see that Canada outscored the USA by a wide margin, if only one place in the standings.


Gold Rush 09.04.08 at 3:06 am

Interesting. . .also on a similar note the science of sport did an analysis:

Seems that correcting for for population is only fair. USA and China have huge talent pools, and should lead the medal haul hands down becasue of population.


Mikhail 09.04.08 at 12:31 pm

Shouldn’t this also take into account varying number of games a given country participated in? Obvious examples – US, Russia and China all participated in significantly different number of events, with the US being by far most regular participant. So, we have to adjust for the opportunity to get medals.


felix culpa 09.04.08 at 5:22 pm

Ah, our oldest and dearest friend, at least if we’re statisticians: endless regress. Always another mountain beyond, and were we by some outrageous efflorescence of mountaineering mischance to run out of mountains, there are the infinitely receding reaches of interstellar space to draw us ever further into the unknown but calculable reaches in which to loose the dogs of statistical readjustment.

Onward and upward to the furthest attainable fields of academically slanted entertainment.

Just kidding.
Go Canada!


Danny Yee 09.06.08 at 3:17 am

Well done Australia? For wasting more of our GDP collecting worthless shiny bits of metal than any other OECD country?

Comments on this entry are closed.