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).

See the complete medal list and population data from which this analysis is derived, and also a discussion of different ranking systems. We have also calculated lists based on medals per GDP.

The Finns are Best when you consider Total Medalsmedal presentation

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
/million pop
1 Finland 101 5.4 18.7
2 Hungary 167 10.0 16.8
3 Sweden 143 9.5 15.1
4 Bahamas 5 0.4 14.1
5 Norway 56 5.0 11.1
6 Grenada 1 0.1 9.5
7 East Germany # 153 16.1 9.5
8 New Zealand 42 4.4 9.5
9 Denmark 43 5.6 7.7
10 Estonia 9 1.3 7.0

Table: Top ranked teams based on TOTAL MEDALS per million population

rank Country Total Medals population (millions) total medals
/million pop
1 Finland 302 5.4 55.8
2 Sweden 483 9.5 50.9
3 Hungary 476 10.0 47.8
4 Bahamas 12 0.4 33.9
5 Denmark 179 5.6 32.1
6 Norway 148 5.0 29.4
7 Bulgaria 214 7.4 29.1
8 Estonia 33 1.3 25.5
9 East Germany # 409 16.1 25.4
10 Jamaica 67 2.7 24.8

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
/million pop
1 East Germany # 5 153 16.1 30.6 1.90
2 Grenada 8 1 0.1 0.1 1.19
3 Bahamas 15 5 0.4 0.3 0.94
4 Finland 24 101 5.4 4.2 0.78
5 Hungary 25 167 10.0 6.7 0.67
6 Estonia 11 9 1.3 0.8 0.63
7 Sweden 26 143 9.5 5.5 0.58
8 Norway 24 56 5.0 2.3 0.46
9 New Zealand 22 42 4.4 1.9 0.43
10 Jamaica 16 17 2.7 1.1 0.39

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
/million pop
1 East Germany # 5 409 16.1 81.8 5.08
2 Finland 24 302 5.4 12.6 2.32
3 Estonia 11 33 1.3 3.0 2.32
4 Bahamas 15 12 0.4 0.8 2.26
5 Sweden 26 483 9.5 18.6 1.96
6 Hungary 25 476 10.0 19.0 1.91
7 Belarus 5 78 9.5 15.6 1.65
8 Jamaica 16 67 2.7 4.2 1.55
9 Slovenia 6 19 2.1 3.2 1.54
10 Bulgaria 19 214 7.4 11.3 1.53

Table Notes:

Further Analysis?

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.

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