The 2016 Summer Olympics have come to a close. Rio pulled it off after all. There were some fantastic performances, a few new records set, and there was way too much coverage devoted to the antics of the U.S. Swimming Team. But now that the dust has settled, it’s time to ask the big question: who won?
You could take a quick glance at the medal count and make an easy conclusion that The United States of American won quite handily with more gold medals (46) and total medals (121) than any other country (woot woot!). If you want to feel good about America then you have your answer and you can stop reading. But if you are either inquisitive or a stickler for fairness, journey onward with us as we explore who really won The Olympics.
The U.S.A. capturing more medals in Rio should not be much of a surprise. We are a huge country (in both population and area) with a lot of money and a deep love of sports. As such, we sent more athletes to the 2016 Games than even the host country Brazil which also has a very large population. We have the money to train athletes in virtually every Olympic sport offered. And we have a big population from which to pull our athletic talent. But what if the playing field were leveled between the U.S.A. and other countries? That’s what we set out to simulate through this analysis.
We stated with the final medal count, by country, for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. To get around any bickering about whether total medal count or simply total gold medal count is more meaningful we calculated a new statistic that takes both into account. We’ll call it Medal Score. It assigns 3 points for a gold, 2 for a silver, and 1 for a bronze. Simple enough, right? Here’s what the top 5 look like with the unaltered medal count converted to Medal Score:
We then grabbed data for each country that won a medal, including the total number of athletes sent to the 2016 games, total population size (2015), and gross domestic product (GDP, 2015) as a measure of a country’s wealth. We could then standardize our Medal Score by each of these three measure to see who really won the Olympics.
Total Number of Athletes
The United States sent the most athletes to the Rio games with 554 in total. Brazil was next highest with 465 and then Germany with 425. The countries that sent the least and still won a medal were Niger (Taekwondo) and Grenada (Track), with each sending just 6. So, when adjusted for the number of athletes sent to the games, whose performance is most impressive? And where does the U.S. come out then?
By this metric the U.S. still scores highly, coming in at number two. But when accounting for the number of athletes it is Azerbaijan who comes out on top (Go ahead, take a minute to Google where Azerbaijan is, we won’t judge you. Yes, you can just copy and paste it from here so you don’t have to spell it. That’s fine too). The Independent Olympic Athletes also do pretty well. North Korea jumps up to the number 5 spot. We have to imagine that North Korea would be at the top if one of those athletes had been Kim Jung Un, given his notorious and totally believable skill at various sports.
Total Population Size
If you’re in charge of selecting a pole vaulter from your country that you hope will be the best in the world, would you rather have a pool of 30 thousand people to pick from, or 30 million people? That’s the essence of the population size argument. More people in theory means more talent. The U.S. is one of the larger countries, but not the largest. What would the medal count look like if everything were standardized for population size?
Now, the tiny nation of Grenada holds down the top spot, followed by several other Caribbean nations and then New Zealand. All of the top 5 are island nations!
The United States would now be in the middle of the pack at 43rd.
Money plays a big role in international sporting success. It takes some serious green to find and cultivate talent across a wide range of sports. To this effect, wealthier nations might have more of an advantage. So, if we standardize by gross domestic product, we can find out which countries are doing best with limited cash:
Once again, little Grenada comes out on top. Jamaica (thanks Usain Bolt) and North Korea follow. The U.S. and its off-the-charts GDP ranks 68th by this measure, which in a sense is reassuring. It demonstrates that money can create a successful program (remember the U.S. still won the most medals), but it can’t ensure anything that looks close to a sweep of the competition. There will always be plucky little countries that produce incredible talent that go on to outcompete the rest of the world.