08/07/2012 12:24 EDT | Updated 10/07/2012 05:12 EDT

Michael Phelps May Have the Most Medals, But is he the Best Athlete?

With 22 medals to his name, Michael Phelps has entered the history books as the most decorated Olympic Games athlete ever. We may never see another athlete accomplish what he has in our lifetime. But, does that make him the ultimate athlete of the Olympic Games? 

Some may argue that perhaps that title belongs to Usain Bolt. Although, Bolt's four gold medals (and counting) may pale in comparison to Phelps' arsenal of medals, some will quickly point out that not everybody swims but everybody runs. So, are all gold medals equal?

Have you ever wondered why certain countries seem to dominate the medal count when it comes to the Olympic Games? True a country's population may play a role, but did you know the single most predictive factor of a country's medal count at the Olympic Games is Gross Domestic Product (GDP)? GDP per capita is indicative of a country's living standards. One might assume a greater GDP allows a country to provide the facilities, coaches and infrastructure to develop various sporting opportunities, thereby giving way to greater performance results.

And what about the likeliness for an athlete to be successful in a given sport? 

Similar to GDP, turns out there is another monumental factor at play -- depth of competition. By this I mean, how many people in the world participate in a given sport. For example, if one is competing in a sport that involves only 10 nations, versus a sport which involves 220 nations one's likeliness for medalling is greater in the sport with 10 nations.

Mitchell and Stewart (2007) have proposed a Competitive Index for Sport by evaluating the characteristics associated with sporting success and the participating countries for the various sports. It was determined that the most competitive individual sports at the 2004 Olympic Games were athletics, swimming, and shooting, respectively, while modern pentathlon, gymnastics trampoline, and canoe kayak slalom scored lowest on the competitive index. 

Mitchell and Stewart found that it was possible to rate the competitive quality of a given sport and the chances for success, whereby the lower the competitive index score the greater chance an individual stood to be successful at the Olympic Games.

For example, the International Ice Hockey Federation has 70 member nations (and two affiliate nations), which is pretty remarkable and competitive, and for that reason you can understand why winning the World Cup in hockey is a big deal to Canadians. However, consider the International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF) which has 212 member nations, and with the allowance of three athletes per country to compete in a given event at the Olympic Games, suddenly the possible depth of competition can be as much as 636 world-class athletes. It's no wonder why winning the gold medal in the 100 metre is one of the most coveted medals in the world.

While the size of the competition field is one aspect, another thing to consider is the resources and opportunities at hand. Perhaps the reason why sports like Athletics (Track & Field) and Football (Soccer) are the most participated in the world is because there is minimal barrier to do these sports. The cost of equipment/facility is negligible, compared to a sport which may require ice time, a sailboat or a horse. 

Consider the fast paced and exciting game of polo which requires horses to be ridden in three minute intervals. As such, each polo player must have several horses, and each horse can cost you $200,000 plus sheltering, veterinary and travel expenses. It's not surprising that most of us have never played polo in our lives. Likewise, the same may be said about the numerous other disciplines where resources and opportunity plays an integral factor in participation. We know in Canada alone, one in three families cannot afford to have their children participate in organized sport.

Even amongst elite level athletes, resources play a big role in the success of an athlete and the difference between good and great. As a world-class athlete, I've experienced and witnessed the incredible impact that support, resources and finances have on performances. It is the difference between eating healthy, receiving necessary therapy, having your coach travel with you to competition and not. This can be the difference between a gold medal and a eighth place finish. I've witnessed far too many athletes miss out on that podium because they didn't have the necessary resources.


The birth-rate effect, described by Maxwell Gladwell in the book Outliers, discusses how being born early in the year influences one's chances of becoming an NHL player. However, researcher Jean Cote (whose works Gladwell cites in his discussion of the birth-rate effect) points out that actually where one is born (birth-place effect) has a greater impact on an athlete's chances for success (Côté et al., 2006).  The reason -- resources and opportunity.

We must be exposed or presented with the opportunity, to ever really know what hidden abilities lay within us. I know this fact all too well. Really, if I wasn't working at McDonald's that one random day when I was 17 years old and asked if I wanted to learn how to high jump, I would never have become an Olympian. It's as simple as that. Which often leaves me wondering how many untapped "talents" are out there and never developed?

Going for Gold

The road to the Olympic Games and the podium is a hard one, no matter the sport one comes from, or the resources and opportunity in place. At the end of the day, nothing can replace the passion we as athletes must have to relentlessly pursue excellence, through lactic acid, broken bones and fatigue. It is a fire that must inherently burn to be sustained. Still it is worth contemplating (in the back of your mind) how depth of competition, resources and opportunity, as well as other factors may contribute to the achievement of a gold medal. Most importantly, how many "other" possible Olympians are out there, that could have been?

2012 London Olympic Highlights