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Aug 25, 2008

The real Olympic medal tally

The final Olympic medal tally is wrong. Here are the real numbers, adjusted for population and GDP. By Thomas Hunter

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.


Citizens per gold

1. Australia


2. Great Britain


3. Korea


4. Germany


5. Russia


6. Italy


7. United States


8. France


9. Japan


10. China


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.


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

1. China


2. US


3. Russia


4. Japan


5. Germany


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22 thoughts on “The real Olympic medal tally

  1. Venise Alstergren

    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. Dale

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

  3. JamesK

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

    That’s never enough.

  4. Sponge Boy

    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.

  5. Sean Carmody

    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.

  6. Julius

    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.

  7. Cynthia

    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

  8. Andrew

    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.

  9. Jim Catt

    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.