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

Peter Fray

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