Reevaluating success at the Olympic Games with ChinaPower

Reevaluating success at the Olympic Games with ChinaPower
Reevaluating success at the Olympic Games with ChinaPower
Reevaluating success at the Olympic Games with ChinaPower Top

    Success at the Olympic Games is most commonly measured by the number of medals won by the participating nations. While tallying up gold, silver, and bronze medals does offer some insight into a country’s performance, it does not account for other key factors. The size of a state’s population and economy have a tremendous impact on its overall medal count. As such, medal counts are heavily skewed toward large, wealthy nations like the US.

     Top Medal Winners at the Olympics
    Year Country % of Overall Medal Count
    2018 Norway 12.8
    2016 US 12.4
    2014 Russia 10
    2012 US 10.8
    Source: International Olympic Committee

    Efforts to address this problem typically evaluate overall performance by accounting for size in some manner, such as ranking nations in terms of medals per capita. While useful, this approach heavily favors participants with smaller populations. Despite winning the most medals (121) at the 2016 Rio Olympics, the US ranked 44th in medals per capita. Meanwhile, Grenada – which has a tiny population but won a silver medal in 2016ranks first. A similar trend occurred at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics, where Liechtenstein ranked first in medals per capita.

    First Place in Medals per Capita
    Year Country % of Overall Medal Count
    2018 Liechtenstein 0.3
    2016 Grenada 1
    2014 Norway 8.9
    2012 Grenada 1
    Source: International Olympic Committee

    To account for the relative performance of larger and smaller nations, ChinaPower has developed a custom metric that is incorporated in our interactive here. The metric determines the expected number of medals a participant should earn based upon size, and then normalizes the difference between this value and the actual medal count. Values range from 100 (best) to 0 (worst).

    Looking at the 2016 Games, we can see that China’s massive population of 1.38 billion people constituted 18.4 percent of the total population of all participating nations. Yet of the 972 medals awarded at the games, China won only 70 medals – or 7.2 percent of all medals awarded. This indicates that China significantly underperformed in terms of its population.

    At the same Games, the UK won an impressive 68 medals (6.9 percent of the whole) with only .87 percent of the total population of participating nations, 3.5 percent of the world’s GDP, and a mere .18 percent of global land area. When weighing the medals to account for the importance of earning golds over silvers and bronzes, the performance of the UK (27 golds) is even more noteworthy.

    Adjusted Top 3 Nations at 2016 Olympics
    Country ChinaPower Adjusted Average Weighted ChinaPower Adjusted Average
    United Kingdom 96.7 97.2
    Germany 76.5 73.9
    France 79.6 73.4
    Source: ChinaPower

    This approach can be used to evaluate relative performance at any Olympic Games. At Pyeongchang, Norway dominated the competition, scoring more than 11 points higher than second place Germany.

    Adjusted Top 3 Nations at 2018 Olympics
    Country ChinaPower Adjusted Average Weighted ChinaPower Adjusted Average
    Norway 100 100
    Germany 85.2 88.7
    Netherlands 77.7 78.1
    Source: ChinaPower

    More figures are available in our data repository. For questions pertaining to this methodology, please contact chinapower [at] csis.org. ChinaPower