As a consultant, it always seemed odd that news reporters routinely compare the medal count between the USA and China – after all, the USA has 530 athletes compared to China’s 380. Seems like the total number of medals is only one of many potential metrics. For example, productivity (i.e., # of athletes needed to win a medal) would be a metric that levels the playing field among countries of different sizes. Thinking along those lines, I smashed together data of the last 40 years and came up with this:
If you’re from Iceland, there is a good chance you are an Olympic Athlete. . .
In 2010, there were 319K people in Iceland and yet they sent 27 people to London for the Olympics. Simple math tells us that they sent 1 athlete for every 11K people. In fact, it is really easy to be an Icelandic Olympic athlete compared to the Bangladeshi.
I took the country’s 2010 population here and divided it by the number of athletes that each country sent to the London Olympics. You can see that China sent 1 athlete to the Olympics for every 3.5M citizens. The US sends 1 athlete for every 580K citizens. It is easier to go to the Olympics as an American than a Chinese – less selective.
If you are from Bangladesh, your chances of going to the Olympics as an athlete are slim. Only 1 in 30 million Bangladeshi go to compete in the Olympics. As a thought-experiment, if all the teams sent 1 athlete for every 30M people . . .
- The US Olympic team would only send 10 people (not 580)
- The total Olympics would only be 233 Athletes (not the 10,700+ it currently is)
- Only 40 countries (over 30M population) would be competing
The most productive Olympic athletes are from . . . . Panama
Why does data surprise us? Looking at all the medals won in 2008, and then dividing it by the number of athletes sent to Beijing by country, Panama wins the prize for the most productive athletes. Panama will win 1 medal (over average) for every 3 athletes they send to the Olympics. It is correlation, not causality – but it is still impressive.
- South Africa won 1 medal in 2008 with 136 athletes
- Burkina Faso also won 1 medal in 2008, with only 6 athletes
Of all the medals that China wins, more than 50% are gold
In a previous post, I discovered that only 32% of medals are gold (more than 36% are bronze). When analyzing the medals over the last 40 years, the Chinese have stood out as a strong bunch. 51% of their medals are gold vs. 32% of US medals being gold.
In terms of the GDP per athlete, the Indonesia was the highest
Looking at the country-based GDP numbers here, Indonesia has $32B in GDP (2010) for every athlete sent to London 2012. By comparison, every Tuvalu athlete symbolizes only $10M in GDP output. Likewise, the US Olympic athlete symbolizes $27B in output compared to $4B represented by the British athlete.
China keeps winning. . .
Looking at the current medal leaders in London, you can see that the United States (in white) has been consistently winning ~ 100 medals every summer Olympics except in the 1980 Olympics where there was a boycott. The British (in blue) have done well since 2000, but the Chinese are the stand outs. They had no Olympic team in 1980, yet they had 100 medals in 2008.
I am a patriotic American. Huge believer in US constitution, freedom of speech, Chik-Fil-A sandwiches, our top-shelf graduate education system, Pixar movies, micro-brews, Teddy Roosevelt, National parks and NPR. (Yes, I do wish the Economist was a US paper). Love watching the women’s soccer (not football) team beat the Japanese, and the women’s volleyball finals US vs. US. Michael Phelps is impressive too.
That said, we also need to give credit where credit is due. The Chinese have been rocking the Olympics. A balanced scored card of the Olympics might look like this.
China won 100 medals in 2008 summer Olympics which was a 59% increase over 2004. Each Chinese athlete has a 1 in 3.5 million chance of making the team, but when they get to the Olympics ~ it takes 6.4 athletes to win a medal, and 51% of the time it is gold.
The Olympics are awesome to watch and one of the most democratic sporting events, if you are willing to measure medal counts a little bit differently. Enjoy the games. Go USA.
Note: The Huffington Post has also done an excellent job with this line of thinking – alternate ways to count medals. Look here.