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Medals per capita, GDP: Ranking the real Olympic superpowers

08/10/2012 09:33 EDT | Updated 10/10/2012 05:12 EDT
Over the past two weeks, the medal tables have told us which countries are leading in the battle for Olympic supremacy.

The names at the top — the U.S., China, Britain, France, etc. — have hardly been shocking. They're among the world's biggest and most developed countries and have always done well in Olympic sports.

But if you level the playing field — and account for such things as the size of a country and its GDP per capita — the contest for Olympic bragging rights becomes less clear-cut.

Some countries are able to do relatively more with less: they outperform based on the number of athletes they sent to London or because of their smaller population base.

So how does the performance of Grenada — an island nation of a little more than 100,000 that claimed a gold medal with a team of just nine athletes — compare to the Olympic giants? Well, it depends on how you rank the IOC nations.

An alternate medal table

The standard medal tables that you see rank countries either by the total medals won, as the CBC does, in which Canada is in 12th spot. Or by weighting them for golds and silvers, as the BBC does, which leaves Canada much lower on the list, in 32nd place.

We've added some extra factors to the table below, along with each country's medal haul, to give a different perspective on who is having the most, shall we say, efficient Olympics.

Below you will find rough calculations of what you might call medal efficiency based on the size of a country's population and of its Olympic squad, as well its gross domestic product (GDP), in US dollars.

The results are current as of the end of competition on Friday, Aug. 9.

Click on a header in the top row to re-sort the columns from lowest to highest. The first four categories tell the story of the current medal standings. The next four will rank the competitors by efficiency, with the lowest number being the most efficient, at least theoretically.

Big teams, more medals

As you can see from the chart below, the richer or more populated countries — like those in the G7 club or the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) group of developing nations — generally sent bigger teams to London.

And in broad terms, these countries took home large medal hauls.

In these graphics, the number of medals won is reflected in the relative size of each individual bubble.

Small teams, big performances

But some teams with fewer athletes were actually more efficient than the Olympic powerhouses, even if their performances are buried in the overall medal tally.

The chart below takes the total number of medals won by a country and divides by the number of athletes sent to London.

(Admittedly, this measure gives an advantage to countries who don't participate in team sports.)

The top 5 and bottom 5 are displayed. Shorter bars mean the most efficiency, longer bars the least.

Like for example Jamaica, with its 50-athlete delegation and which has 10 medals to its credit. So that is one medal for every five athletes sent or 1:5.

At the other extreme, the 71-member Venezuelan team has claimed just one medal to date, and would have a ratio of 1:71.

Canada sits roughly in the middle in this measure.

Performance by population

The bigger a country's population base, the more potential athletes it has to choose from — and ultimately the more medals it has a shot at. Or so the theory goes.

In China's case, with 1.34 billion people and more than 80 medals to its credit, that seems to apply.

But when population is brought into the equation, some smaller countries punch above their weight (to borrow a boxing cliché).

New Zealand has to date claimed one Olympic medal for each 350,000 residents. Same with the Bahamas.

India, the world's second-most-populous country, has just one medal for each 400 million of its citizens.

Sources: 2011 GDP and population - World Bank; Team size and medals - London Olympic organizers

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