Medals and Country Size

Winners of sporting events 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 too. Here we compare medals 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 Rio 2016.

Large Population and Medals: The Finns are the Best

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 (2,520 total, 1,022 gold), and are the third most populous country. The country with the highest population is China, who have finished high on the medal tally recently, but because they only first competed in 1952 their total is not as great (543 total, 227 gold). On the all-time medal tally, China has moved up from 11th in 2008 to 9th (2012) to 7th (2016). The second most populous country, India, has underperformed with just 28 medals won.

If we calculate the number of medals won per population, then Finland is the most successful country at the Olympic Games (irrespective of whether you use the total golds or total medals metric). Finland has won 101 gold medals in 25 appearances at the Summer Olympics, with a current population of about 5.5 million people. Compare that to Denmark, with a similar population and from the same region, who 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.

The country with the largest population which is yet to win a medal is Bangladesh, with a population of 160 million people.

Weight lifting has been a successful sport or small nationsWeight lifting has been a successful sport or small nations

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 11,300), who have attended the Games since 1996. The best result is an 8th place finish by weight lifter Yukio Peter in the 2004 Athens Olympics.

The smallest country to win a medal is Bermuda (population 61,300). In 1976, boxer Clarence Hill took the bronze medal in the men's heavyweight division.

The smallest country to win a gold medal is Grenada. Grenada 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 (they're the 17th-smallest country in the world).

Another standout in the small nations is the Caribbean country The Bahamas, with their 6 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. If we consider both Summer and Winter Games, then Liechtenstein is the smallest nation (in both land area and population) to win an Olympic medal, though all of their ten medals were won 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 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 M├ędecin 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 to win a medal was Grenada, with a land size of 344 km2 (133 miles2). Kirani James won gold in the Men's 400 meters in 2012.

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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