Most Successful Countries of All-Time: Per Capita

2021 UPDATE: Bermuda, population 62,000, won its first-ever gold medal at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, placing it 4th on the all-time gold medals per-capita list. Also in 2021, tiny San Marino with a population of fewer than 34,000 won three minor medals, making them the least populous nation to ever take home an Olympic medal.

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 the success of nations at the Olympic Games is an alternative to the popular way of ranking based on just total gold medals won.

Below are tables of the top countries based on the total all-time medals won during the Summer Olympics (including Tokyo 2020 data), ranked relative to the nation's population (latest UN figures from 2019).

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.

Small Island Nations Are The Best

Before the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, Finland was the leading country for medals won per population, but the recent success of the small nations of Bermuda, Bahamas and San Marino has upended the lists. 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

Atop the list is the Caribbean island country The Bahamas, with their eight gold medals from sailing and athletics (two added in Tokyo 2020), and with a current population of fewer than 400,000 people. For even smaller countries like Bermuda and Grenada, a single gold medal is enough to get them into the top ten.

rank Country Gold est. population total gold
/million pop
1 Bahamas 8 389,482 20.5
2 Hungary 181 9,684,679 18.7
3 Finland 101 5,532,156 18.3
4 Bermuda 1 62,506 16.0
5 Sweden 148 10,036,379 14.7
6 Norway 60 5,378,857 11.2
7 New Zealand 53 4,783,063 11.1
8 Grenada 1 112,003 8.9
9 Jamaica 26 2,948,279 8.8
10 Denmark 48 5,771,876 8.3

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

Tiny San Marino has yet to win a gold medal, though their three medals in Tokyo has shot them to the top of the list of total medals per capita.

rank Country Total Medals est. population total medals
/million pop
1 San Marino 3 33,860 88.6
2 Finland 305 5,532,156 55.1
3 Hungary 511 9,684,679 52.8
4 Sweden 503 10,036,379 50.1
5 Bahamas 14 389,482 35.9
6 Denmark 205 5,771,876 35.5
7 Bulgaria 224 7,000,119 32.0
8 Bermuda 2 62,506 32.0
9 Norway 160 5,378,857 29.7
10 Jamaica 87 2,948,279 29.5

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 has appeared at all 28 Olympic Games with China, who has appeared only 10 times. A better analysis would be to base the analysis on the average number of medals won per attendance, not on the total medal count. After crunching the numbers after the 2021 Olympics, there are a few significant differences to the lists above.

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

Small island nations top this list. The Bahamas added two gold medals to their tally in 2021, while Bermuda won their first-ever Olympic gold medal at their 19th appearance at the Games, when Flora Duffy won the women's triathlon. The small nation of Grenada won its first medal, a gold, at the 2012 Olympics, in its eighth appearance at the Games.

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 between 1968-1988. East Germans won 153 gold medals in five Olympic Games and with an estimated population of 16.1 million at the time, the average gold medals per million population would be 1.90. 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 The Bahamas as the most successful country per capita.

rank Country No. Olympics Gold est. population Ave No. Golds Ave Gold
/million pop
1 The Bahamas 17 8 389,482 0.5 1.21
2 Grenada 10 1 112,003 0.1 0.89
3 Bermuda 19 1 62,506 0.1 0.84
4 Kosovo 2 3 1,873,000 1.5 0.80
5 Finland 26 101 5,532,156 3.9 0.70
6 Hungary 27 181 9,684,679 6.7 0.69
7 Estonia 13 10 1,325,648 0.8 0.58
8 Sweden 28 148 10,036,379 5.3 0.53
9 Jamaica 18 26 2,948,279 1.4 0.49
10 Slovenia 8 8 2,078,654 1.0 0.48

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

Bahamas jumped up to top this list after the 2016 Olympics but five years later, even with a few more medals, they are down the list. After the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, the tiny nation of San Marino has jumped to the top thanks to three medals in their 16th appearance at the Games.

San Marino would even beat the mighty East German team if they were included, with 409 total medals in five Olympic Games and an estimated population of 16.1 million, average medals per million population for East Germany would be 5.08.

rank Country No. Olymp. total medals est. population Ave Total Medals Ave Medals
/million pop
1 San Marino 16 3 33,860 0.2 5.54
2 Grenada 10 3 112,003 0.3 2.68
3 Finland 26 305 5,532,156 11.7 2.12
4 Bahamas 17 14 389,482 0.8 2.11
5 Estonia 13 36 1,325,648 2.8 2.09
6 Hungary 27 511 9,684,679 18.9 1.95
7 Sweden 28 503 10,036,379 18.0 1.79
8 Bermuda 19 2 62,506 0.1 1.68
9 Slovenia 8 28 2,078,654 3.5 1.68
10 Jamaica 18 87 2,948,279 4.8 1.64

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 a good performing country per capita, but they have not been successful as they have been in the past.

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