Comparison of Population Ranking Systems at the Olympics

The USA and USSR have dominated the medal tally throughout modern Olympic history. China is the new Olympic medal producing powerhouse. The thing these countries have in common is large resources, including a large population from which to develop Olympic medalists. To some people this does not seem fair, and a more reasonable way of ranking the performance of countries at the Olympics is to compare the results to the population size of the country.

Below we use the 2008 medal table as an example to compare the different population ranking systems (using gold medals, total medals and weighted medal points). The population data is taken from theĀ CIA World Fact Book, 2011.

Comparison Tables

When ordered by medals per capita, small nations tend to dominate, as it does not take many medals to quickly shoot up the tables. Using the medals won throughout the history of the Summer Olympic Games, it may be a more accurate measure of the per capita success of country. We have done a similar analysis using the all time medal list to determine the total all-time Olympic medals won per capita.

olympic jumping posterGold medals per million population

By all accounts Jamaica was a very successful country at the 2008 Olympic Games. Thier athletes won six gold medals, from a population of 2,780,132. However, they did not show much diversity - all the medals were from sprint events, with three golds thanks to World record holder Usain Bolt. Bahrain was originally placed second on this list with a gold to Rashid Ramzi in men's 1,500 meters (Bahrain's first Olympic medal) but he was later stripped of his medal due to a doping violation.

Rank Country Gold Silver Bronze Gold/Million
1 Jamaica 6 3 2 2.1582
2 Estonia 1 1 0 0.7599
3 New Zealand 3 1 5 0.7289
4 Australia 14 15 17 0.6851
5 Mongolia 2 2 0 0.6776
6 Norway 3 5 2 0.6482
7 Georgia 3 0 3 0.6457
8 Slovakia 3 2 1 0.5507
9 Slovenia 1 2 2 0.4977
10 Latvia 1 1 1 0.4425

Total medals per million population

The tiny nation of the Bahamas (population 305,655 in 2008) won two medals in athletics to be the clear leader of total medals per million population. Australia is also a standout on this list, with a population of over 20 million - the others are smaller nations of 4 million or less.

Rank Country Gold Silver Bronze Total
Medals
Total Medals
/Million
1 Bahamas 0 1 1 2 6.5433
2 Jamaica 6 3 2 11 3.9566
3 Iceland 0 1 0 1 3.3120
4 Slovenia 1 2 2 5 2.4885
5 Australia 14 15 17 46 2.2511
6 New Zealand 3 1 5 9 2.1867
7 Norway 3 5 2 10 2.1608
8 Cuba 2 11 11 24 2.1064
9 Armenia 0 0 6 6 2.0191
10 Belarus 4 5 10 19 1.9538

Weighted medal score per million populationĀ 

(using the Topend Sports weighted ranking system: Gold=6 Silver=2 Bronze=1 points)

This method takes into consideration both the high value of gold medals won, plus some value (albeit much less) for the minor medals. Jamaica leads in this system, as it did for the ranking system based on just gold medals. Winning just any Olympic medal is a great achievement for some of the smaller nations. Although the Bahamas and Iceland only won a couple of minor medals, they are from such as small population and this table indicates gives credit for that. Iceland's solitary silver medal from a population of just over 300,000 ranks better than Norway's 10 medals including 3 golds from a population 15 times larger (about 4.5 million), and that sounds about fair.

Rank Country Gold Silver Bronze Weighted
Medal Count
Weighted Medals
/Million
1 Jamaica 6 3 2 44 15.8265
2 Bahamas 0 1 1 3 9.8150
3 Iceland 0 1 0 2 6.6240
4 Norway 3 5 2 30 6.4824
5 Australia 14 15 17 131 6.4109
6 Estonia 1 1 0 8 6.0795
7 New Zealand 3 1 5 25 6.0742
8 Slovenia 1 2 2 12 5.9724
9 Mongolia 2 2 0 16 5.4204
10 Belarus 4 5 10 44 4.5245

We have also ranked countries on total all-time Olympic medals won per capita. See also another demographic ranking system based on gross domestic product (GDP), and the comparison of weighted points ranking systems.

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