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The real Olympic medal tally

When you slice and dice the final Olympic medal tally to account for country population and wealth, how do Australia’s 46 medals stack up? A triumph or a waste of time? Do we punch above our weight or are we pack of plodders?

The following table shows the official top ten by gold medals in column one, and then in columns two and three, what the top ten looks like when it’s adjusted for population and GDP. (Thanks to Symworld for the numbers. For the complete list, click here)

Beijing 2008 final
gold medal standings

Adjusted for population

Adjusted for GDP

1. China

1. Jamaica

1. North Korea

2. United States

2. Bahrain

2. Jamaica

3. Russia

3. Dominica Republic

3. Mongolia

4. Great Britain

4. Mongolia

4. Georgia

5. Germany

5. Estonia

5. Ethiopia

6. Australia

6. New Zealand

6. Kenya

7. Korea

7. Georgia

7. Belarus

8. Japan

8. Australia

8. Zimbabwe

9. Italy

9. Norway

9. Bahrain

10. France

10. Slovakia

10. Panama

-

16. United Kingdom

29. Australia

-

26. Russia

30. China

-

33. United States

37. Great Britain

-

47. China

47. United States

Olympic medal tables adjusted for population and GDP.

The good news is that in the adjusted figures Australia comfortably beats Great Britain, the US, China and Russia, but in doing so lets New Zealand race past for a higher place on the overall tallies. The above table also shows that the Olympics is anything but a level playing field. The richest and most populous nations have an insurmountable competitive advantage when finally the athletes crouch waiting for the starter’s gun.

When we calculate how many citizens it takes to earn a gold medal, Australia rockets to the top of the standings. It’s beyond doubt: Australia converts citizens into gold medals more efficiently than any other nation in the top ten. And into that list you can add New Zealand, which takes 4,173,460 citizens to produce one gold medal. That makes Australia roughly three times more efficient at converting citizens into gold medals than our cross-Tasman rivals, and more than twice as efficient as the Brits.

Nation

Citizens per gold

1. Australia

1,471,489

2. Great Britain

3,207,574

3. Korea

3,787,141

4. Germany

5,148,097

5. Russia

6,117,482

6. Italy

7,268,165

7. United States

8,439,574

8. France

9,151,112

9. Japan

14,143,157

10. China

26,079,305

Citizens per gold medal — An alternate Olympic Top Ten

What’s really interesting about those numbers is how many medals our rivals would win if they produced as many golds per citizen as Australia does. China, for example, would have won 903 golds. Here’s an alternate top five based on Australia’s ratio of gold medals to citizens. Just imagine our dominance if we could find, say, another billion citizens.

Nation

Gold medals at 1 for every 1,471,489 citizens

1. China

903

2. US

206

3. Russia

95

4. Japan

86

5. Germany

56

22
  • 1
    Venise Alstergren
    Posted Thursday, 28 August 2008 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

    So long as Australians fa*t around proudly deciding which country won the most tiddlywinks, so long we will remain the most mentally impoverished nation on earth.

  • 2
    Mike
    Posted Tuesday, 26 August 2008 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    Who cares!

  • 3
    Dale
    Posted Monday, 25 August 2008 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

    Imagine 1.4 billion Australians.
    I don’t think the world is ready.

  • 4
    JamesK
    Posted Monday, 25 August 2008 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    There are 10 sheep for every man, woman and child in NZ.

    That’s never enough.

  • 5
    Sponge Boy
    Posted Monday, 25 August 2008 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    No Jeremy and Jim, Thomas is right. YOU are counting only people, while HE is counting citizens - and in the case of our friends across the ditch, that includes the sheep.

  • 6
    Sean Carmody
    Posted Tuesday, 26 August 2008 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

    I see that symworld have now corrected their tally for the Dominican Republic.

    As someone else pointed out, the conversion from Gold per capita to citizens per gold is dodgy, but the problem is not with the Australian calculation. The figure of 1,471,489 per Gold is not too far wrong (I make it more like 1,528,165), but with the New Zealand calculation. They won 3 Golds not 1! So, they only need around 1,442,933 citizens per Gold.

    As any school student should be able to tell you, sorting Gold / Population in descending order will give you exactly the same list as Population / Gold in ascending order.

  • 7
    Julius
    Posted Monday, 25 August 2008 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    An unsophisticated analysis despite all the labour and puffing. Where are the adjustments for the limitation on the number of competitors per country. At the simplest level that would mean that some Chinese, Russian and US competitors who weren’t there would have knocked out the odd Aussie bronze medal winner. And what’s that “official” count of medals which gives each country’s loot? I thought the IOC still refused to treat the games as between countries.

  • 8
    Cynthia
    Posted Monday, 25 August 2008 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps tallies do matter to the richer countries however, I don’t believe that a country such as North Korea, Jamaica or Ethiopia, for example really care. There achievements, in my opinion, weigh far greater than any tally ever could

  • 9
    Andrew
    Posted Monday, 25 August 2008 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

    Giving a ratio of medalists to citizens or people in a country implies that there is some link between the emergence of exceptional athletes and the number of normal, TV watching multitudes around them. If the atheletes were randomly allocated within the total world population on the basis of, random genetic variability then one would still see more medals from large countries without there being any relationship - other than the number of rolls of the dice - with the country itself. Should we congratulate ourselves on our random clustering of genetic talent? Who knows, Botswana could get a killer swim team some decade, its just down to probability.

  • 10
    Jim Catt
    Posted Monday, 25 August 2008 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    I think our friends across the ditch have been a bit hard done by in Thomas Hunter’s article. New Zealand scored three gold medals in Beijing from a poplulation of about 4.2M - that works out at about 1.4M population per gold medal - a little better than Australia.

    Hunter makes a good point when he ranks the table by GDP. Clearly the ability to generate gold medals comes from several factors, including having a culture that highly values sporting achievement (e.g. Australia and New Zealand). In the end, however, you’ve got to have the funds to invest in infrastructure and institutions like the AIS if you want to land a bag of gold.

  • 11
    Jack
    Posted Monday, 25 August 2008 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    There was a Sunday newspaper report suggesting that Jessica Schipper’s coach had also provided his program to the chinese swimmers who pushed Schipper back to Bronze.

    Not sure if this is corect or not but the analysis I think that all Australians would find interesting is how many Australian-coached competitors won gold (eg British cyclists, Chinese swimmers).

    Then taking that analysis a step further would be to find out whether these coaches received Australian taxpayer funded earnings before selling their programs overseas.

    That would take my level of interest up a notch or two. Because if there has been taxpayer support of these coaches then the above analysis should be further adjusted for this factor - which would definitely see us move ahead of NZ !

  • 12
    Phil Diamond
    Posted Monday, 25 August 2008 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

    Is there a way of calculating the number of money spent to obtain a Gold Medal? Where would Australia rank here? We spend a lot of money on the wrong things. Get a PhD and do fundamental research: you pay HECS and get peanuts afterwards even if you can get a job. Go to the AIS, win a gold, or become a champion tennis player/golfer, get a fortune and not even pay back any of the money spent developing you talent. Some exceptions, Pat Rafter springs to mind - but that is a generous nature.

  • 13
    Bernard Keane
    Posted Monday, 25 August 2008 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    What about IRAQ????

  • 14
    David
    Posted Monday, 25 August 2008 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

    We demand a retraction / correction please Thomas!! You get no medals for misinterpreting some very basic stats. As always the over acheiving Kiwis have once again defeated Australia and rank near the top on a Golds per capita basis. With a total of 3 Golds they managed one Gold for every 1.42 million people compared with Australias one Gold for every 1.47 million people, and this from a pretty below average games for the Kiwis. Remember back to Montreal when they beat us not just on the usual per capita basis with 2 Golds to our zero!! Retraction please. cmon!

  • 15
    Don Kinnell
    Posted Monday, 25 August 2008 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

    As a Kiwi, I am generally far to modest to calculate gold medals per capita, even though NZ scores well in this respect. However your article has a glitch in that the first table puts NZ rightfully ahead of Australia in gold medals per capita, but your third paragraph has NZ with one gold for 4 million citizens, trailing Australia. Mate, we got three golds and none were those girly syncronized swimming jobs; ours were the manly variety like wind surfing! We also got a bronze in the 1500 metres which is worth several soft golds.

  • 16
    Jeremy Davis
    Posted Monday, 25 August 2008 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    Thomas, your calculations appear to be out regarding NZ and their population per gold. NZ won 3 gold medals so thats means 1,424,800 per gold as opposed to Aus at 1,528,165 per gold.

  • 17
    Dave Liberts
    Posted Monday, 25 August 2008 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    Why does anything written by a journalist involving basic maths always have to be so outrageously wrong? What population figure does Thomas give Australia to conclude that we’ve won one gold per 1,471,489 citizens? How does this compare with the gold per population figures for New Zealand, Jamaica, Georgia (population shrinking?) or even Mongolia? The answer is simple - Australia is most certainly not top of the ‘Citizens per gold’ table. I learnt how to divide one number into another in grade 3. Thomas must have been away the day his class did it.

  • 18
    Wayne
    Posted Monday, 25 August 2008 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

    Maybe Thomas Hunter is factoring in even toed ungulates into the statistics for the NZ medal/population count? Seems to be the most obvious reason for the statistical oversight, unless it was intentionally designed to annoy New Zealanders…..

    Re: the GDP, it seems to have been calculated by GDP/head, which seems more logical than total GDP.

    It would also seem logical to expect an effect of diminishing returns as populations increase wouldn’t you?

  • 19
    Bruce
    Posted Monday, 25 August 2008 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    As with the other comments, I was unaware NZ had 12 million or so citizens. Also, don’t neglect to count NZ citizens who won medals for other countries - Emma Snowsill, for example: http://www.nzherald.co.nz/section/4/story.cfm?c_id=4&objectid=10527659
    I understand it as been claimed that at the Sydney Olympics more New zealanders won medals for Australia then they did for NZ.

  • 20
    Hamish Moffatt
    Posted Monday, 25 August 2008 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

    How does gold medals adjusted for population differ from citizens per gold? The rankings came out vastly different. This article is very confusing..

  • 21
    Mark P
    Posted Tuesday, 26 August 2008 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

    It’s over people, get some sleep.

    We finished 6th. End of story.

    Well done all athletes.

  • 22
    Sean Carmody
    Posted Monday, 25 August 2008 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

    A couple of rankings are somewhat off here. The Domincan Republic should not be where it is. While they did win a gold medal, your source has their population out by a factor of ten: their population is 9,760,000 not 976,000 and so they rank in the high 30s in the gold per capita stakes.

    Also, your source estimates Zimbabwe’s GDP at over $16 billion while the World Bank (http://siteresources.worldbank.org/DATASTATISTICS/Resources/GDP.pdf) and the CIA World Factbook (https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/zi.html) put it $3.418bn and $2.211bn respectively. Depending on which figure you take (and inflation means that it is probably falling by the minute), you would have to put Zimbabwe in fourth or even first place in the golds by GDP race. Of course, some would point out that their medallist, Kirsty Coventry, trained for many years in the US.

    There are charts, some more discussion and links to the data here: http://www.stubbornmule.net/2008/08/olympic-update/

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