Most Successful Countries of All-Time: Per Capita (2016 UDATE)

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 2016 data), ranked relative to the nation's population (figures mostly from 2015).

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 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 25 appearances at the Summer Olympics, with a current population of 5.5 million people. Denmark, with a similar population and from the same region, have won only 45 gold medals. Many of Finland's medals were gained in early last century, with only a few medals won in recent Olympiads.

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 (and a silver to add to that in 2016), coming from a population of just over 100,000. Another standout on the top 10 list is another Caribbean country The Bahamas, with their 6 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

Jamaica is the country jumping into the top 10 after a successful 2016 Games.

rank Country Gold est. population total gold
/million pop
1 Finland 101 5,493,577 18.39
2 Hungary 175 9,823,000 17.82
3 Bahamas 6 378,040 15.87
4 Sweden 147 9,906,331 14.84
5 Norway 56 5,236,826 10.69
6 New Zealand 46 4,710,740 9.76
7 Grenada 1 103,328 9.68
8 Jamaica 23 2,723,246 8.45
9 Denmark 45 5,724,456 7.86
10 Bulgaria 51 7,153,784 7.13

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

rank Country Total Medals est. population total medals
/million pop
1 Finland 303 5,493,577 55.16
2 Hungary 491 9,823,000 49.98
3 Sweden 494 9,906,331 49.87
4 Bahamas 14 378,040 37.03
5 Denmark 194 5,724,456 33.89
6 Bulgaria 214 7,153,784 29.91
7 Norway 152 5,236,826 29.03
8 Jamaica 78 2,723,246 28.64
9 Estonia 34 1,315,944 25.84
10 New Zealand 117 4,710,740 24.84

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 28 Olympic Games with China, who have appeared only 10 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 2016 Olympics, the results are quite different to those above. We have listed only currently competing countries. If included, the East Germans would be 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, which leave Grenada as the 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 6 golds in their 16 appearances.

Table: Top ranked teams based on AVERAGE GOLD MEDALS per million population

If included, the East German team would top this list, with 153 gold medals in five Olympic Games and an estimated population of 16.1 million, average gold medals per million population would be 1.90.

rank Country No. Olympics Gold est. population Ave No. Golds Ave Gold
/million pop
1 Grenada 9 1 103,328 0.1 1.08
2 Bahamas 16 6 378,040 0.4 0.99
3 Finland 25 101 5,493,577 4.0 0.74
4 Hungary 26 175 9,823,000 6.7 0.69
5 Estonia 12 9 1,315,944 0.8 0.57
6 Sweden 27 147 9,906,331 5.4 0.55
7 Kosovo 1 1 1,836,978 1.0 0.54
8 Jamaica 17 23 2,723,246 1.4 0.50
9 Norway 25 56 5,236,826 2.2 0.43
10 New Zealand 23 46 4,710,740 2.0 0.42

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

If included, the East German team would top this list, with 409 total medals in 5 Olympic Games and an estimated population of 16.1 million, average medals per million population would be 5.08. Bahamas has jumped up to top this list after the 2016 Olympics, mainly due to poor returns from Finland and Estonia. Grenada jumped into the top 10 too with a second medal to runner Kirani James.

rank Country No. Olymp. total medals est. population Ave Total Medals Ave Medals
/million pop
1 Bahamas 16 14 378,040 0.9 2.31
2 Finland 25 303 5,493,577 12.1 2.21
3 Estonia 12 34 1,315,944 2.8 2.15
4 Grenada 9 2 103,328 0.2 2.15
5 Hungary 26 491 9,823,000 18.9 1.92
6 Sweden 27 494 9,906,331 18.3 1.85
7 Jamaica 17 78 2,723,246 4.6 1.68
8 Slovenia 7 23 2,063,371 3.3 1.59
9 Bulgaria 20 214 7,153,784 10.7 1.50
10 Belarus 6 85 9,498,700 14.2 1.49

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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