New Zealand’s “medal strike rate” has got me thinking about the economics of Olympic medal counts. The Kiwis have compiled a sort of per capita medal count determining which country won the most medals per million citizens. The winner: Grenada. Even though it only won a single (gold) medal in London, that works out to about 10 medals for every million Grenadians. Compare that to only 4 for every million Jamaicans (second place) and 3 for every million Trinidadian and Tobagonians (third place). Not surprisingly New Zealand is in fourth place, using their smallish population to sooth the sting of winning only 13 medals in 2012. Rounding out the top ten are Bahamas, Slovenia, Mongolia, Hungary, Denmark, and Georgia. When factoring in total population, the United States comes in 50th, losing to Russia (34th) but still besting China (75th).
Handicapping the medals this way does make sense. It stands to reason that populous nations should be able to find more Olympic caliber athletes than tiny countries and therefore win more medals. But population is only part of the story. For example the two most populous countries, China and India, have similar populations (give or take 100 million), yet India won only six medals in London compared to China’s 87. In fact India comes in dead last in the medal strike rate count. Are Indian athletes inherently worse than Chinese athletes?
A far more interesting variable (to me at least) is the economic development of a country. After all, regardless of a country’s population, it takes a lot of money to train for say, equestrian events. Nations with poor economies will never be able to train their athletes for velodrome or BMX races, and the next Michael Phelps might not even live within 200 miles of a pool. Athletes themselves might not be able to become athletes without time available for training after they’ve provided for themselves and their families. Hard to do if you’re fighting for your survival on a daily basis.
So how do you rate the economic development of a country? GDP per capita — all of the money a country makes divided by the population. This gives a yearly income for the average citizen of each country. It’s an admittedly rough estimate of economic development, but it does give a decent look into what the average resident of (and athlete from) each country has to work with. Using GDP per capita gives a better insight (in my opinion) into which countries are getting the most out of their human capital (people) and their economies (money). So I took the New Zealand medal count and substituted GDP per capita for population. Here are the results:
The top ten countries getting the most medals out of their limited resources are Ethiopia, China, Kenya, Russia, Ukraine, North Korea, India, Cuba, Uzbekistan, and Jamaica. One strange trend here seems to be communism. In spite of having very poor economic opportunities for its citizens, China, North Korea, and Cuba pour their limited resources into winning Olympic medals. Ethiopia and Kenya top the list by being very poor countries that win a lot of medals, all in distance running (a sport that doesn’t require a big training budget). India moves from the bottom of New Zealand’s medal strike rate list into the top of the GDP list on account of having a bad economy.
The bottom of the GDP list is equally interesting. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Cyprus, Portugal, Singapore, Norway, Bahamas, Hong Kong, Qatar, and Kuwait are the ten worst countries at converting their resources into medals (at least of countries who won medals). Now the trend is Middle Eastern, oil-rich, and/or business-oriented countries being “punished” by having very high GDPs with few medals to show for it. (Presumably Norway would move up this list if it were for Winter Olympics.) For the record the U.S. comes in 13th, Great Britain 18th and New Zealand 51st.
Since there are three variables involved here (medals, GDP, and population) countries wishing to move up the list can do any or all of the following for Rio in 2016: win more medals, lower their GDPs, or increase their populations.
GPD per Capita Source: Wikipedia – List of countries by GDP (nominal) per capita (CIA Column)