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Bahamas and Australia Lead Real Medal Table

The Bahamas are the greatest sporting nation on earth, followed closely by Australia. That is the only conclusion that can be drawn from the 2004 Olympics, held in Athens from August 13th – 29th. ‘But the US topped the medal tally, with China and Russia next’ I hear some wail. So we need to take a few steps back to prove the Bahamian dominance.

From one perspective, the Olympics are just a two-week spectacle of warmth and fuzziness. You can see this on any number of levels. Take the Olympic flag – blue, yellow, black, green and red rings on a white background. The number of rings represents the five continents in the Olympic movement, while the color scheme is such that every nation’s flag has at least one of its colors represented on the Olympic flag. Or take the Olympic truce – the somewhat flimsy ideal that while the Olympic flame burns, the world should be at peace. Or even take the Olympic motto – ‘citius, altius, fortius’, meaning ‘faster, higher, stronger’ and referring more to individual achievement than international competition.

When you put all this together, you could see the Olympics as an idealistic festival. Further evidence comes from the fact that the International Olympic Committee does not publish an ‘official’ medal tally. This outlandish assertion of mine can be verified by a quick visit to www.olympic.org. However, as all but the TV-phobes amongst us would have noticed – the medal tally is everywhere. It was the front of every news bulletin during the recent Olympics. It was the source of pride for some nations who outperformed expectations (e.g. Japan, with 16 Gold in Athens 2004, up from just 5 in Sydney 2000). Conversely, it was the source of embarrassment for some nations that underperformed (e.g. The Netherlands, who sunk from 12 Gold in Sydney 2000 to just 4 in Athens 2004).

Given all this focus on the medal tally, many try to inject a bit of reality into the discussion by adjusting the tally in some way. Suggestions include: adjustments for GDP, size of team, spending on sports and so on. However, the most popular adjustment is for population (see for example www.abs.gov.au), and this adjustment yields some interesting results.
The analysis prompts a few surprising insights. First, as the headline suggests, The Bahamas are the greatest sporting nation on earth.

Second, with six places in the top ten, the regional hotbed of sporting success is Eastern Europe, not the more prosperous region of Western Europe as one might expect. Third, Australia is the only nation to figure in the top ten on both a ‘raw’ and adjusted basis.

Australia’s ability to force its way into both lists is truly remarkable. However, it also exposes the weakness of the rest of the ‘big five global sporting superpowers’. Or should we say alleged global sporting superpowers? Russia comes out ‘best’ of these, in 26th place on an adjusted basis. Germany and the U.S. are 29th and 39th respectively, while China languishes in a disappointing 70th place (of 75 nations that earned at least one medal in Athens). On the topic of disappointment, spare a thought for India, whose return on a population of 1 billion was just 1 silver medal.

At the end of the day, an article like this probably raises more questions than it answers. However, next time you see pictures of wealthy, populous nations hooping and hollering about their medal tallies, remind yourself what the real tally looked like in Athens. Unless, of course, you are Australian, in which case you can hoop and holler as much as you like!

Recall that the ‘raw’ medal tally read:

Rank, Country, Total Medals
1. USA 103
2. Russia 92
3. China 63
4. Australia 49
5. Germany 48
6. Japan 37
7. France 33
8. Italy 32
9. South Korea 30
10. Great Britain 30

However, when we adjust for population,
it reads as follows:

Rank Country Population Per Medal
1. Bahamas 152,000
2. Australia 412,000
3. Cuba 419,000
4. Estonia 456,000
5. Slovenia 498,000
6. Jamaica 535,000
7. Latvia 572,000
8. Hungary 578,000
9. Bulgaria 653,000
10. Belarus 657,000

September 13, 2004
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