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Which countries are the most successful at the summer Olympics?

Gold medalist Sunisa (Suni) Lee of the United States kisses her medal in front of the Olympic rings.
Reuters/Lindsey Wasson
Another gold for the US in Tokyo.
  • Amanda Shendruk
By Amanda Shendruk

Visual journalist

Published

When the Tokyo Olympics close on Aug. 8, and the final medal tally is taken, we’ll likely be talking about the usual suspects: the US, China, and maybe Russia (currently competing as the ROC). These countries have huge medal hauls, large populations, and teams numbering in the hundreds.

But perhaps we should really be talking about countries like Jamaica, New Zealand, and Slovenia. Like Kenya, which got a medal for every three athletes it sent to the games in 2008 and 2012. Or like Grenada, which continually walks away with wins despite a population the size of a few blocks in Manhattan.

Here are three revealing ways to look at medal gains: as total counts, in relation to the country’s population, and as a fraction of the number of athletes sent by the team.

Which countries consistently win the most summer Olympic medals?

Since the 1990s, pinpointing the country with the most medals has been easy: the US. As far as runners up, there’s some variation, but China is continuously on America’s heels. Even now, midway through the games in Tokyo, the US has the most total medals with China following close behind.

Which countries have the best medal-to-population ratio in the summer Olympics?

You could argue that countries with a large population have an advantage: More people to choose from means a greater chance there’s an Olympian in the midst. So it’s particularly interesting to remove this variable and look at a medal counts compared to population.

This is achieved simply by dividing the country’s population by the number of medals their Olympic team won. Here’s what the lowest and highest population-per-medal counts looked like for the most recent summer Olympics.

One of the most interesting wins in recent memory is that of Grenada, a small island country with a population of just over 100,000. It sent seven athletes to the 2016 Olympics, and won a gold. Grenada scored another gold medal in 2012.

Since 2004, a handful of nations have continuously been in the top 10 of this list: the Bahamas, Jamaica, and Slovenia, with notable mentions for New Zealand and Hungary, which have made three of the last four top 10s.

Bermuda will likely be a contender for top of the list this year. With a population of 63,000, it became the smallest region to win a gold with Flora Duffy’s triathlon victory on July 30.

India, however, consistently foils the trend that countries with large populations end up with many medals. In 2016, it only won two medals, meaning one medal for just over half a billion people. The country has historically been one of the worst-faring Olympic nations by population.

In the summer Olympics, which countries have had the best athletes-to-medal ratio?

In other words, let’s take a look at how many medals a country receives with respect to the number of athletes it sends. Wealthy, populous nations tend to send large delegations: Team USA, the largest at the Tokyo summer Olympics, sent over 600 athletes.

Most nations aren’t sending that many people, and it’s pretty hard to get 30 medals if you can only send two athletes. By dividing the number of athletes in a team’s delegation by the total medals that team won, we can get the number of athletes per medal. Here’s what that looked like in 2016.

There are some nations returning here from our other charts. The US and China are consistently on the list of most medals won. So it looks like they send a lot of athletes, and they get a lot out of them. Again, this isn’t the case for India, which also appears at the bottom of this ranking.

Over recent summer Olympics, a few countries show up high on this list over and over. Ethiopia has ranked well each of the past four years, with Jamaica, and the US each appearing three times.

To be fair, while an analysis of athlete-to-medal ratio is interesting, it can be a bit of an awkward way to judge the teams. For example, some athletes win multiple medals all on their own. There’s also the case of team sports—participating in basketball means sending quite a few athletes. And if they win, it’s only a single medal.

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