Does the Olympic Medal Count Count?


Every time the Olympics rolls around, we are presented with dutiful media updates on the ongoing tally of gold, silver and bronze medals won by the competing countries, a proxy for the sports prowess of the competing superpower nations. So, given the dissimilarity of each country and their sports teams, how does the Olympic medal count count?

by Blake Pembroke Sell

It’s patriotically satisfying to see the United States win the Rio Olympics medals count, and so much attention is paid to the medals race every Olympics, but the count is hollow statistically.


The USA had 567 athletes competing, the largest team of any country, 82 more than the next largest team. Only 11 of the 206 other countries competing had more than half the number of USA athletes, and 156 countries had 1/10th or fewer as many athletes; 98 countries had ten or fewer athletes. Having more athletes increases the odds of winning medals.

This made me think about analyzing the medal count and drawing a comparison among the medal winning countries based on statistical comparison.


The United States won 121 medals with 567 athletes, that’s one medal for every 4.7 athletes on the team, fourth best in medals-to-athletes.

The country with the best medals-to-athletes ratio was Azerbaijan winning 18 medals with 56 athletes, one medal for every 3.1 athletes.

North Korea, not exactly known as a sports powerhouse, had the second best medals-to-athletes ratio, winning seven medals by 31 athletes, or one for every 4.4 athletes.

China had the second highest number of total medals (70) behind the USA, but ends in 11th place in medals-to-athletes (1 for every 5.8)

Russia was fourth in total medals (56) and sixth place in medals-to-athletes (1 for every 5.1).

The host country Brazil did very poorly despite having the second largest number of athletes, 485, finishing in 71st place among 88 medal winning countries by winning one medal for every 25.5 athletes.

Germany had the third largest number of athletes, 441, and the fifth highest number of total medals won (42) but ended up in 33rd place among 88 medal winning countries, winning one medal for every 10.5 athletes.


There are many team events that require multiple athletes: basketball, water polo, volleyball, 2-person kayak, synchronized springboard, etc., with teammates only able to win one medal in the medal count. For example, while the United States had 567 athletes, 12 of them were competing for one medal on the men’s basketball team.

Adjusting the athlete count for athletes that were competing for team medals (for example: 12 men’s basketball athletes = 1 athlete, 2 beach volleyball athletes = 1 athlete) the USA team had 353 athletes instead of 567. Russia had 230 instead of 286, etc.

Using this medals-to-athlete method factoring team-event athletes, the USA team had a phenomenal Olympics, finishing as the best of all competing nations, winning an incredible one medal for every 2.92 athletes.

Russia won one medal for every 4.1 athletes using the team-athlete adjusted method.


Another way to analyze the medal count is on a per-capita basis – looking at the country’s population divided by the number of medals.

USA ends up in 43rd place with one medal for every 2.7 million people. That’s one place behind Russia.
Brazil (72nd place) and China (77th place) don’t do well by this measure.

By comparison, Australia only needed 838,253 people to make one Olympic medal, less than a third of the USA per-capita medal production.

The top three winners on a per-capita basis are Grenada (though it won only one medal), Bahamas (2 medals) and New Zealand, winning 18 medals, one for every 253,621 people. On a per-capita basis New Zealanders were 3.3 times more productive than Australians at winning Olympic medals.


What about analyzing the ratio of a country’s financial power to Olympic medals won, using the country’s GDP (thanks Bernie Woodall.)

Grenada won only one medal and ends up at the top of the medal production list for GDP. Jamaica won 11 medals with a ratio of one medal for every $1.3 billion GDP, good for second place.

Azerbaijan comes up high again, in third place with one medal for every $2 billion GDP.

Using the GDP method the USA is far behind Russia, Australia, Great Britain, Brazil and most other medal winning countries in 70th place, winning one medal for every $153.4 billion GDP.

China is behind USA in 71st place with one medal for every $162.6 billion GDP.


This one is a bit esoteric but nevertheless here goes. There were a total of 975 medals given out in Rio, with the USA team winning 121 or 12.4% of all the total medals. The USA’s GDP is 24.85% of the total GDP of all nations. Comparing the difference between percentage of medals won to percentage of global GDP, the USA team finished in 87th place among medal winners, dead last, one step behind China.
By this measure the winner is Russia, taking 5.7% of all medals and having only 1.5% of total world GDP. Great Britain finished in second place, Azerbaijan in third.


This is where the USA team showed its breadth, winning medals in 107 of the total 306 medal events, a 35% medal-to-event ratio.

China, with second most in total medals, won medals in 61 events compared to the USA’s 107 events, 57% of the USA medal events, but China had 405 athletes to USA’s 587, 69% of the USA total, giving the edge to the USA in medal winning events.

Brazil, the second largest team, had 85% the number of USA athletes but only won medals in 18 events, 17% the success rate of the USA team.


The USA team won 121 total medals and the medals were almost evenly split, with USA women leading with 63 total medals and men with 58 (includes 0.5 for each mixed doubles tennis medal.)

But the medal count hides the fact that In gold medals, the USA women far surpassed the men by 1.5 times, producing 27.5 gold medals to the men’s 18.5 (there was one gold medal in mixed tennis counting 0.5 each.) While there were more women athletes on the USA team then men, after adjusting for women competing on teams for one medal, the USA men outnumbered the USA women by 7%.

More statistically interesting is that the women competed in far fewer medal events than men, 138.5 events for women vs.167.5 for men. Women competed for gold medals in 20% fewer events than men but produced 150% more gold medals.

The Chinese team, second highest in winning medals, won only 14 medals by its women, one half the number of USA’s women. In fact the USA women produced more gold medals than Chinese and Russian women combined.

Great Britain finished second overall in the gold medal count with 27 but the British women produced only 8 of those medals.

mdf4042THE POINT?

Azerbaijan had 56 athletes (the 52nd largest team) but had the best medals-to-athletes ratio (winning one medal for every 3.1 athletes), was 8th in medals per capita (well ahead of the top 15 countries in the medal count), and 3rd in producing medals by country GDP. But Azerbaijan finished only 39th in the total medal count with 18, and didn’t show up on anyone’s scoreboard.

The Olympic medals race has become the source of pride or embarrassment for many countries, and one that gets so much attention every Olympics, but it’s rather meaningless statistically.

Blake Pembroke Sell, Aug. 21, 2016

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