Aug 14 2012

Who Won The Olympics? It Depends How You Ask The Question…

Categories: General Dave Rathbun @ 1:33 pm

A while back I published a blog post that claimed that Mount Everest was not the highest or even the biggest mountain on the Earth. Today I am going to make another startling claim: the recently closed 2012 Olympics were won not by the United States, China, Russia, or even host country United Kingdom. No, the 2012 Olympics were won by: (drum roll please) Grenada. Yes, that Grenada. The country that most USA folks probably didn’t even know existed until it was invaded by Clint Eastwood in Heartbreak Ridge.


If you follow my BI tweets (@dagira_tweets) you’ve already seen a preview of this blog post. I was reading an article tweeted by Steve Lucas from SAP about data from the Olympics. From that article I clicked through to an alternate way of rating countries. By the time the 2012 London Olympics were over the United States team had received 104 total medals, China’s team was awarded 87, Russia earned 82, and host country United Kingdom was fourth with 65. From that we can conclude that the United States won the 2012 Olympics, correct?

Not so fast. Let’s look at some other contributing factors that might have some impact on how we view the success of each country.

Total Population

First, I will look at the total population for each of these countries. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that with more people to draw from the odds of finding a stellar athlete such as Michael Phelps go up. Based on the CIA World Factbook (link below) the United States ranks 3rd in world population, China is number one, Russia is number nine, and the UK is 22nd. With that in mind, here’s a table showing the relative world population of each of the top four countries and the medal count per million, sorted by total population in descending order:

2012 Olympic Medals by Total Country Population in Millions (MM)
Country Total Medals Gold Medals Population (MM) Medals / Person Gold / Person
China 87 38 1343.24 0.06 0.03
USA 104 46 313.85 0.33 0.15
Russia 82 24 138.08 0.59 0.17
UK 65 29 63.05 1.03 0.46

Looking at the above table it shows that the UK now comes in first, with an average of 1.03 medals (0.46 gold) per million population. That means that the UK is the true champion country for the 2012 Olympics as they earned more medals than any other country based on the total population of potential athletes to select from.

Once again, not so fast. :)

Home Team Advantage

Throughout the event there were frequent reminders that the “home team” often sees a jump in overall medal count. The UK certainly demonstrated this, earning 65 total medals in London compared to only 47 medals in Beijing in 2008. What possible reason could there be for this increase? Do athletes really perform better on their native soil? Is that why the UK team scored the most medals relative to the total country population? Was Stonehenge a factor?

The answer turns out to be fairly simple. In 2008 the UK sent 312 participating athletes to Beijing. That number jumped all the way up to 556 for 2012. (It would appear that it’s not just corporations cutting down on travel expenses to save money. ;) ) In 2008 those 312 athletes came home with 47 medals, an average of 0.15 medals per athlete. Using the same ratio and a team size of 556 they should have won about 84 medals. They didn’t.

UK Team Comparison 2008 Versus 2012 Olympics – Home Team Advantage?
Year Team Size Medal Count
2008 312 47 Actual
2012 556 83.75 Projected
2012 556 65 Actual

As shown above, the 2012 UK team earned 65 total medals resulting in a ratio of 0.12 medals per team member. How did the other countries fare based on the different team sizes? I can show that by dividing the total medal count by the reported team size for the 2012 Olympics, shown in the next table below, in which the rows are sorted in descending order by team size:

2012 Olympic Medals by Total Country Team Size
Country Total Medals Gold Medals Team Size Medals / Team Member Gold / Team Member
UK 65 29 556 0.12 0.05
USA 104 46 531 0.20 0.09
Russia 82 24 435 0.19 0.06
China 87 38 371 0.23 0.10

Ironically, as in my first scenario, the country at the bottom of this sorted list again has the top rating. Of the four countries I have included in my analysis so far China had the smallest team of athletes, yet they were the most productive. Remember that the UK only got 0.12 medals per team member China almost doubled that at 0.23. The USA is in second at 0.20 and Russia a close third at 0.19.

That means that finally I can declare China to be the true top country at the 2012 Olympics. They got the most out of the team of athletes they sent, earning the highest ratio of medals per team member.

Once again, not so fast. :) I want to dig more into the “doing the most with the least” and see where that takes me.

Country Ability to Support Olympic Team Members

The total Gross Domestic Product or GDP of China for 2011 was estimated to be about 11.4 trillion dollars which puts them second on the list. (Everything will be in US Dollars to make the math easier.) The USA ranked #1 with an estimated GDP of 15.3 trillion. Russa had 2.4 trillion and the UK had 2.3 trillion. (To be fair, the European Union ranked #1 for 2011 GDP, but the EU did not compete as a single entity for the Olympics, so I’m ignoring them.) Where am I going with this? I would like to suggest that any country with a high GDP could be expected to have more funds to support the selection and development of an Olympic team. A high GDP would also correlate fairly directly to the population of the country so it also should be similar to the first statistic I covered: medals per millions of population. What does that do to my analysis? Will China still come out on top, or will it be the UK or USA? Here’s what that data looks like, with the rows sorted in descending order by country GDP:

2012 Olympic Medals by Total Country Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in Trillions (TR) of US Dollars
Country Total Medals Gold Medals GDP (TR) Medals / TR GDP Gold / TR GDP
USA 104 46 15 6.9333 3.0667
China 87 38 11 7.9091 3.4545
Russia 82 24 2 41 12
UK 65 29 2 32.5 14.5

Using this statistic I can see that Russia was the top medal-winning country when compared to country GDP (although the UK does take the title for gold medals only). So, finally, we can declare Russia the Olympic champion. They have earned 41 medals per each trillion GDP while the USA (our original champion when we started this journey) only earned 6.93.

For the last time, not so fast. ;)

What About The Little Guys?

Celebrations weren’t limited to the big nations – tiny Grenada earned their first Olympic medal in 2012, and it was a gold! Grenada only sent 10 athletes to the competition, and earned just a single gold medal. That means using the metric of “medals per team members” they came in at 0.1. The leader in this metric was China with 0.23, so clearly Grenada has some work to do. But what about the other two metrics of “medals per million population” or “medals per trillion GDP”? Here are the same tables I posted above but I have added Grenada to the mix. First, total population in millions:

2012 Olympic Medals by Total Country Population in Millions (MM) With Grenada
Country Total Medals Gold Medals Population (MM) Medals / Person Gold / Person
China 87 38 1343.24 0.06 0.03
USA 104 46 313.85 0.33 0.15
Russia 82 24 138.08 0.59 0.17
UK 65 29 63.05 1.03 0.46
Grenada 1 1 0.11 9.09 9.09

There are only 109,011 total people in Grenada! The calculation in the above table shows the medal count per million, and since Grenada is far under that, it shows that they earned 9 medals per every million population, even though they only earned one. Math is weird like that sometimes.

What about Gross Domestic Product?

2012 Olympic Medals by Total Country Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in Trillions (TR) of US Dollars With Grenada
Country Total Medals Gold Medals GDP (TR) Medals / TR GDP Gold / TR GDP
USA 104 46 15 6.93 3.07
China 87 38 11 7.91 3.45
Russia 82 24 2 41.00 12.00
UK 65 29 2 32.50 14.50
Grenada 1 1 0.001468 681.20 681.20

The total GDP for Grenada is just over a billion dollars, far less than a trillion, so the chart above shows it as a very small decimal. When I now evaluate the ability of Grenada to support an Olympic team and divide the total medal count by their GDP I come out with a whopping ratio of 681.2, far above the value of 41.0 from previous winner Russia. Thus I am going to declare Grenada the overall winner of the 2012 Olympic medal race. They did the most they could with the smallest population to select from and the least funds available to support their team. For the record, the one gold medal earned by their team was in the 400 meter sprint by Kirani James. Not only did he win the race, he set a new national record of 43.90 seconds. Rather than being “not so fast” he was quite fast indeed.

Congratulations, Kirani, you put your country on the top of the Olympics. 8-)

Related Links
Below are some related links and references used in writing this blog post.

5 Responses to “Who Won The Olympics? It Depends How You Ask The Question…”

  1. Comment by Ginger

    Awesome post! I hope you’ll do more number crunching for the election this Fall! Thanks for your insight!

  2. Comment by Smruti Panda

    Nice calculations Dave…!!!

  3. Comment by Daniele

    funny analysis… missing a lot of variables to make it useful though (type of discipline, training, athlete’s body structure, etc…)

  4. Comment by sri

    Winning Olympic medals purely depends how rich the country is and how much it is spending on sports

  5. Comment by Moneeb

    Agree 100%..Awesome number crunching comparison

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