Every four years thousands of athletes from hundreds of nation meet to celebrate and contest the festival of sport known as the Olympic Games. And every four years following the Olympics, patriotic pundits scrutinize the results, trying to prove which country is the best.
By the end of the 2016 games in Rio de Janiero, the United States had an impressive, record-breaking medal tally of 121 (including 46 gold medals) nearly doubling second place China (70 total medals) and Great Britain (67 total medals). Russia’s 56 medals was also impressive given that most of its athletes were barred from competing due to widespread, systematic doping.
But the medal count doesn’t tell a complete story of which country performed the best in Rio. More populous countries have a distinct advantage. After all, more athletes should equal more medals. A nation’s economy also factors large in its ability to field a quality Olympic team. If people are just struggling to make the ends meets, it makes it very difficult to train for let’s say, synchronized diving.
Google accounted for both of these factors with its Alternative Olympics medal table. If you even out populations, the Bahamas jumps to the top of the chart with an adjusted count of 100 medals beating out the U.S. (70) and Great Britain (50). Level the economic playing field and the top three are Fiji (with an adjusted count of 63), the U.S. (56), and Jamaica (32).
But what I like to do following every Olympics is to account for both population and GPD at the same time by adjusting the medal count for GPD per capita, all of a nation’s wealth divided by it population, which gives a rough estimate of the annual income of the average citizen. That helps answer the question, which country is getting the most out of their resources, both human and financial?
Running the numbers in 2016 shows little change from the 2012 results. Ethiopia, North Korea, Kenya, China, Russia, Uzbekistan, Ukraine are all once again in the top 10, getting good medal results in spite of very poor economic opportunities for the average citizen. Joining the top 10 in 2016 are Burundi, Azerbijan, and Niger. Burundi and Niger each make the list this time due to their terrible economies and the fact that they both won a single medal in Rio, something they failed to do in London. Azerbaijan earns most improved award, moving up the list from 20th place to crack the top 10 by increasing their medal haul from 10 to 18. Dropping out of the top 10 in 2016 are India, Cuba, and Jamaica. Jamaica just missed the cut by lowering its medal count from 12 to 11. Cuba also fell in the medal count from 14 to 11 while its GPD per capita improved somewhat. And India’s disappointing Rio medal count of two cost it 18 spots in the standings.
On the other side of the list are the countries that don’t get good medal results in spite of the average income of its residents. Qatar, Singapore, Portugal, and Norway all make another appearance in the bottom 10. Norway’s four Olympic medals don’t offset its very high average income of $75,000 while Qatar, Singapore, Portugal should all expect to hear their countries’ anthems played more than once given their economic resources. Bahrain worked its way up out of the bottom 10 this year by doubling its medal count (from one to two). Saudi Arabia, Hong Kong, and Kuwait also disappeared from the bottom 10 medal winners, but they did it the wrong way. None of them factored in to this year’s calculations because they didn’t win a single medal in Rio.
Austria, Finland, United Arab Emirates, Puerto Rico, Ireland, and Trinidad and Tobago joined the repeat offenders in the bottom 10 of 2016. Finland because its medal count dropped from three to one, Puerto Rico dropped from two to one, Ireland dropped from five to one, and Trinidad and Tobago dropped from four to one. The high GPD per capital of both Austria and United Arab Emirates should justify more than the single medal they each won in Rio but they actually have reason to be proud they’re in the bottom 10 this time around. They’re actually improving. Neither country made 2012 list because neither country won a medal in London.
The United States came in 13th place in 2012 and is once again in 13th place in 2016. The medal count increased from 104 to 121, but that was offset by increased GPD per capita brought about by a recovering economy.