Most Successful Countries of All-Time: Per Capita
Generally the most successful countries in terms of Olympic medals won are also some of the biggest countries in terms of population. This may seem unfair when comparing the success of countries, as the bigger countries have a larger population pool from which to develop athletes. Using per capita data to rank success of nations at the Olympic Games is an alternative to the popular way of ranking based on just total gold medals won.
The following analysis is based on the total medals won by a country throughout modern Olympic history (we have also calculated the per capita medal results for the 2008 Olympic Games, though with the small sample size a single medal to a small nation can make a big difference to the ranking).
Below are tables of the top countries based on the total all-time medals won during the Summer Olympics (including 2012 data), ranked relative to the nation's population (in 2012).
The Finns are Best when you consider Total Medals
Finland is the most successful currently competing country at the Olympic Games based on their population size and the number of Olympic medals won (irrespective of whether you use the total golds or total medals metric). Finland have won 101 gold medals in 24 appearances at the Summer Olympics, with a population of just over 5 million people in 2011. Denmark, with a similar population and from the same region, have won only 43 gold medals.
A country which has leaped into the top 10 is the small nation of Grenada which won its first gold medal in 2012, when runner Kirani James won the Men's 400 meters, coming from a population of about 100,000. Another standout on the top 10 list is another Caribbean country The Bahamas, with their 5 gold medals from sailing and athletics, and with a current population of less than 400,000 people.
When using this method to rank countries for the 2008 Olympic Games results, smaller countries tended to dominate the list, as it only required a medal or two for them to rank highly. Using the all-time list as done here provides a larger data set and gives a more accurate and representative result.
The two tables below show the ranking based on (1) gold medals won, and (2) total medals won.
Table: Top ranked teams based on GOLD MEDALS per million population
|rank||Country||Gold||population (millions)||total gold
|7||East Germany #||153||16.1||9.5|
Table: Top ranked teams based on TOTAL MEDALS per million population
|rank||Country||Total Medals||population (millions)||total medals
|9||East Germany #||409||16.1||25.4|
The Caribbean is the place to be
As pointed out in several intelligent comments about the above results, I have come to realize that the figures above may not best represent per capita medals. The data does not account for the number of appearances of each country. For example, it is not fair to compare the total medal count of the UK who have appeared at all 27 Olympic Games with China, who have appeared only 9 times. A better analysis would be to base the analysis on the average number of medals won per appearance, not on the total medal count.
After crunching the numbers after the 2012 Olympics, the results are quite different to those above. The East Germans are the top ranked per capita medal winning country based on average medal counts, having produced a large number of gold medals relative to its population in its five appearances at the Olympics. There is no doubt that the East Germans had some talented athletes and a very well organized sports development program, though it is now known that systematic doping took place which would account an unfair boost in their medal count. Also considering it is no longer in existence as such, I am happy to ignore the East German results, leaving Grenada as the newly crowned most successful country per capita.
The small nation of Grenada won its first medal, a gold, at the 2012 Olympics, in its eighth appearance at the Games. Finland was also put down a place by another Caribbean country The Bahamas, who have done well to win 5 golds in their 15 appearances. In the table of average total medals per Olympics per capita, Grenada and Bahamas drop down the list as they have relatively more gold than other medals
Table: Top ranked teams based on AVERAGE GOLD MEDALS per million population
|rank||Country||No. Olympics||Gold||population (millions)||Ave No. Golds||Ave Gold
|1||East Germany #||5||153||16.1||30.6||1.90|
Table: Top ranked teams based on AVERAGE TOTAL MEDALS per million population
|rank||Country||No. Olymp.||total medals||population (millions)||Ave Total Medals||Ave Medals
|1||East Germany #||5||409||16.1||81.8||5.08|
- The data includes all medals won at the summer Olympic Games (including 2012). The original medal list source: Wikipedia.
- The population data was sourced from the Wikipedia page: List_of_countries_by_population, which contained the most recently known (as of Aug 2012) population data.
- # Population data for countries that have won medals in the past but no longer exist in that form was sourced from various sources, using population estimates closest to the time they last participated at the Olympics.
Of course there are also some other issues with the current analysis. In most cases the most current population data is used for analysis here, even though many of the medals were won during earlier Olympics were the population would have been lower. The assumption is that the relative populations between countries is similar over time, but this is probably not always the case. This analysis also assumes an even distribution of medals over time, which is also not correct. Finland may historically be the best performing country per capita, but they may not currently be as successful as they have been in the past.
- calculated lists based on medals per GDP.
- the complete medal list and population data
- a discussion of different ranking systems.
- medal tables from all Olympic Games
- about Olympic Medals