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Little Giants

Based on medals per capita, who is the real winner of the 2008 Beijing Olympics?

September 2, 2008

Based on medals per capita, who is the real winner of the 2008 Beijing Olympics?

Every four years the international spin doctors gear up to tout the brilliant achievement of their champions in the Olympics.

This year, China obviously made great strides, running away with the gold medal total. But wait, say fans of the United States — the largest number of total medals went once again to the US of A.

Supporters of state-sponsored sports machines might counter by looking at how the states of the former Soviet Union did collectively.

Fourteen countries together (Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Moldova and the Baltic republics) garnered 43 gold medals (behind China’s 51 but in front of the U.S.A.’s 36) and 171 total medals, far ahead of the U.S.A.’s 110.

The original six European Common Market countries plus Great Britain did better than all of these, when their medals are totaled. Germany, France, Italy, Benelux, and Great Britain together won 58 gold medals and 174 total medals.

Mastery is in the eyes, and more importantly, in the spin of the beholder.

But if we standardize performance, taking account of the fact that some countries are much more populous than others and some are much richer than others, which countries stand out?

Two countries stand out in the rankings of medals per capita and medals per million dollars of GDP. Few who watched the Olympics will be surprised to learn that tiny Jamaica topped the list of medal winners on a per capita basis.

Whether we look only at the gold medal count or we calculate a total from all the medals — counting each gold as three points, each silver as two points, and each bronze as one point — Jamaica has the highest medal score per capita. (We will refer to this total, counting gold as three points, silver as two points and bronze as one point, as the “weighted total” of medals. All countries are considered that produced at least two different athletes who won medals.)

Also excelling in weighted total medals per capita are some countries that received little if any attention for their excellent performances. Among rich countries, Norway, Australia, and New Zealand might easily be overlooked. Among poorer countries, would anyone have guessed that Slovenia, Mongolia, and Estonia would be standouts?

Two of these countries stand out on another scale. If we look at how many weighted medals a country produces per billion dollars of GDP, several of the poorer countries of former the USSR stand out. But so too do two of the countries in the list above: Jamaica and Mongolia.

1 Jamaica
2 Bahamas
3 Norway
4 Slovenia
5 Australia
6 Mongolia
7 New Zealand
8 Estonia
9 Cuba
10 Belarus
1 Mongolia
2 Jamaica
3 Georgia
4 Kenya
5 Ethiopia
6 Tajikistan
7 Kyrgyz Republic
8 Armenia
9 Belarus
10 Uzbekistan

Perhaps instead of celebrating the prowess of the huge rich giants that dominate the Olympics, we should be looking for the countries that made the most of their endowments. Hooray for the two little tigers: Jamaica and Mongolia.

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