With the closing of the Athens Olympics on Sunday, newspaper headlines boasted of yet another record year for American athletes. The "Biggest winner is US athletics" http://www.miami.com/mld/miamiherald/sports/9541421.htm proclaimed the Miami Herald writing the "United States claimed 103 medals in Athens and proved it is still a dominant athletic force." True, the United States was the leader in overall medal count--11 more than second place Russia and 40 more than China who placed third. Count another way though and the United States placed a dismal 38th out of 75 medal scoring countries.
Instead of counting the total number of medals, if countries are scored by the number of medals per capita the tiny island nation of the Bahamas would win. With two medals, a gold in the women's 400m and a bronze in the women's 200m, divided by a population of just under 300,000 The Bahamas earned one medal per 150,000 people. In contrast the United States won 103 medals, but spread over a population of 293 million that's only one medal for every 2.84 million people. Other medal powerhouses by population include Estonia, Cuba, Australia, Slovenia and Latvia with medals per 330,000 to 500,000 people.
Among the 75 countries awarded medals, the last place country was India with just one medal for 1.065 billion people. The 2008 Olympic host country China also scored poorly when ranked by population. Despite its second place in total medals, China ranked 5th from the last with just one medal per 21 million people.
There are obviously many ways that the Olympic medal count could be adjusted to make favorable comparisons for each country involved. Some have suggested weighting gold, silver and bronze medals differently, adjusting for team sports where multiple athletes win a medal, calculating by number of athletes entered in the games or place of training (as opposed to country competing for) and even comparing by GDP.
In the end, though this is nothing more than statistical play designed to let everyone believe that their team is a winner in some way. Truly every athlete that competes in the games has reached the pinnacle of their sport and no statistical number can take that away.
Medal statistics from official Athens 2004 web page. Population statistics from the CIA World Factbook.
|39||U Arab Emirates||1||3||3|
|64||I. R. Iran||6||69||11.5|
|68||Syrian Arab Rep||1||18||18|