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Olympic medals: the nations who make the most of their population and cash



By Nick Harris

SJA Internet Sports Writer of the Year

23 July 2012

There is typically a strong relationship between the size of a nation’s population, its financial resources and the amount of medals it wins at an Olympic Games.

A variety of studies has shown this to be the case, and predictions for London 2012 abound, from Dan Johnson in Colorado (link to article), (and link to his data) to Goldman Sachs (link to article), (and to their data), and umpteen others in between.

Goldman think Britain will win 30 golds to finish third in the medals table, which looks optimistic, although as written in our own January predictions for sport in 2012, we reckon that Team GB will win 24 golds (and 55-60 medals altogether) to pip Russia for third place in the final medals table, behind the USA and China.

Trying to guess medal tallies, based on science or a hunch, is part and parcel of the Olympic build-up. What actually happens tells us much about the sporting world we live in, and how different nations treat sport.

In the article linked here from March, we looked at which nations won the most gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics per 1m people. Jamaica came out on top, followed by Estonia, with Mongolia, New Zealand, Georgia and Australia all doing very well too.

To explore this in much greater detail for Sportingintelligence, Ben Jones of the DataRemixed blog has now used population and GDP data to produce the brilliant interactive graphic below to allow you to explore which nations punched above or below their weight at the 2008 Games when numbers of people and cash are taken into account.

NB: the graphic, driven by Tableau software, will take a few moments to load 

The graphic allows you to see which nations most effectively use their population and GDP to win medals.

The opening page shows you which nations won most medals (of all colours) by head of population in Beijing, and you can see Bahamas were No1, followed by Jamaica, Iceland and Slovenia.

But by changing the tab on the left (population) to GDP, you’ll see that Zimbabwe become the most efficient nation, winning more medals per £ of GDP than anyone, ahead of Jamaica, Mongolia and Kenya.

If you just want to consider gold medals, or silver, or bronze, then change the right-hand tab to recalculate.

If you just want to look within a specific continent, change the middle tab.

Click on a country’s name on the map, or on their flag in the graphs, for more details about the relevant achievements.

There is a wealth of information available by searching for different findings, but some ‘best and worst’ findings include:

  • Iceland were the best nation in Europe in winning most medals per person (3.31 per 1m people) and Portugal were worst of those that won medals (0.19 per 1m people).
  • Belarus won most medals per £ of GDP in Europe, and Belgium won fewest.
  • In Asia, Armenia won most medals per people, while India won fewest (of those that won medals); India also had the worst return by GDP in Asia, while Mongolia had the best return.
  • In Africa, Zimbabwe punched highest above its weight (of those winning medals) in financial terms, and South Africa fared worst. In population terms, Mauritius was the best African nation and Egypt the worst.


(If the graphic fails to appearview it externally here. NB: It’s a complex graphic so it takes a few moments to get started)





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