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Medals and Country Size

The winner at the Olympic Games are awarded a gold medal, and success is often measured by how many of these an athlete or country wins. Generally, the most successful countries are some of the biggest countries, which makes sense with a larger pool of potential athletes. Smaller countries have also produced some great athletes. Here we compare medals won with country size (both size and population) to see how countries have performed relative to their size. The data presented is for all results up to and including Tokyo 2020.

Population and Medals: Smaller is Better

Having a large population is an obvious advantage for a country to be successful in sports. The USA has won the most medals overall at the Olympics Games (2,636 total, 1,061 gold), and are the world's third most populous country. The country with the highest population is China, which have finished high on the medal tally recently, but because they only first competed in 1952 their total is not as great (634 total, 262 gold). On the all-time medal tally, China has moved up to 6th in 2021 from 11th in 2008. The second most populous country, India, has underperformed with just 35 medals won (10 gold). The country with the largest population which is yet to win a medal is Bangladesh, with a population of 160 million people.

However, if we calculate the number of medals won per population, then the small countries dominate, with The Bahamas winning the most golds per population, and San Marino the most total medals per population size. Bermuda is also in the top 10 for both metrics. There are also a couple of large countries that have performed well relative to their size, Hungary and Finland, though many of their medals were won at earlier Olympic Games.

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Small Population and Medals

It may seem unfair when comparing the success of large and small countries, as the bigger countries have a larger population pool from which to develop athletes. However, there are many small countries punching above their weight.

The smallest nation to compete at the Olympics is the Pacific island of Nauru (population 12,580), who have attended the Games since 1996. Their best result is an 8th place finish by weight lifter Yukio Peter at the 2004 Athens Olympics.

The smallest country to win a medal is San Marino (population 33,860). In 2021, the country sent a team of five athletes to Tokyo, and returned with three medals.

The smallest country to win a gold medal is Bermuda. Bermuda won its first gold medal in 2021, when triathlete Flora Duffy won the women's event, coming from a population of just over 62,506.

Another standout in the small nations is the Caribbean country The Bahamas, with their 8 gold medals from sailing and athletics, and with a current population of fewer than 400,000 people.

Land Size and Medals

Above we have discussed population size and medals won. Out of interest here are comparisons of land size and medals won.

The smallest country by land size in the world is Vatican City, but the smallest country to participate at the Olympics is the second smallest, Monaco. Monaco made their Olympic debut in 1920, and are yet to win a medal, and having the record for the most appearances without winning a single Olympic medal. However, a Monegasque architect Julien Médecin won a bronze medal for architecture at the 1924 Olympics Art Competition (though these medals are no longer recognized as official by the IOC).

The smallest country by land size to ever win a medal is Bermuda (54 km2, gold in 2021), which is only slightly smaller than San Marino (61km2, 3 medals in 2021)

Also of note is Liechtenstein who has won all of their ten medals at the Winter version. Liechtenstein has an area of just a shade over 160 square kilometers and a population of about 38,000 people.

The largest land size country yet to win a medal is the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It is also the second most-populous country in the world never to have won a medal (after Bangladesh).

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