Why do some countries win more Olympic medals?

Looking at the medal table as the Beijing Olympics enter Day 12, it is clear that while the Olympics include more countries than the United Nations, a relatively small number still dominate the medals. While 76 countries have ‘medalled’ at the time of writing, only 16 of those are into double figures, and the two leading nations (the USA and China) each have nearly twice as many as any other country. What is behind the dominance of the leading nations?

Two main factors immediately spring to mind: money, and population. National wealth affects the support a country is likely to give to sport, and also the opportunities available to individuals. Population is also important, and with 1.3 billion people host nation China (well ahead at present in the table) has many more potential athletes than any other leading country. But the other country with a one billion population, India, only has one medal – the first ever individual gold for an Indian in the Olympics. Why does India do so poorly?

This question is examined by Krishna and Haglund (2008), in an article published in July in Economic & Political Weekly, and added to the CAB Abstracts database this week. The author points out that in 2004, India won only one Olympic medal, while Turkey with less than 10% of the population won ten times as many.With one-sixth of the global population, India won only one medal out of 929, the lowest number of medals per million population in the world. While Australia won 2.46 medals per one million population in 2004, India won 0.0009; Nigeria, the next lowest, won 0.015 medals per million population.

Looking at the situation in India, Krishna and Haglund suggest that many Indians are not effective participants in sport. This analysis considers two separate arenas for enlarging the pool of effective participants, one related to sports and other to social mobility. In both cases, this paper finds the plausibility of an explanation based on effective participation rates. It examines what country characteristics are associated with greater success in the Olympics at the macro level by considering indicators such as health, education, and especially three variables of information and access (road length per unit of land area, the share of urban population and radios per capita).

The paper asks two questions: (1) How many of the available medals should a country expect to win given its levels of population, wealth, health, education, public information, and connectedness? And (2) What factors raise the probability that a country will win at least one medal? The answer to the first question seems to be that a larger population, greater public information, and lack of urbanisation contribute to an increasing share of medals. The answer to the second question is that a larger population, greater wealth, and more public information increase the likelihood that a country will send at least one athlete to the medal podium.

Money clearly plays a greater role in some sports than in others. Sports such as cycling, rowing, sailing and equestrian require expensive equipment and facilities, and developing countries have never won medals at these sports. Even in less expensive sports, there is a huge disparity in access to coaching and training facilities. A survey in underdeveloped countries by UNESCO in 1995 (referred to in Manzenreiter, 2007), found that 16 of the least developed countries had an average of just 71 football pitches, 31 volleyball courts, 13 athletics tracks and 3 swimming pools per country. There was also a lack of human resources, with one country having no physical education scheduled in primary school, and three others just one scheduled hour per week. As exposure to sport during one’s childhood determines the lifelong participation in sport to a great degree, it is not surprising that the ratio of sport participation (calculated on memberships in sport organisations) in underdeveloped countries is in the range of 0.01 to 1% of the population, compared to enrolment rates in European countries ranging between 20% and 25%. Given these problems, underdeveloped countries therefore often depend on foreign aid for their sporting activities: money flowing from abroad, import of sporting goods and equipments, and multinational sponsorship.

While national wealth and population influence Olympic success, other factors are also involved. Krishna suggests based on modelling that a country can be expected to win only an additional 0.34% of all medals for every 1 percent increase in population size, while raising the per capita GDP by $1000 yields an additional 0.06% of the available medals.

Also important is how national wealth is translated into financial support for sport, and on whether there is a national ‘culture’ of competitive sport, stemming from education and social factors. Australia, with a population of around 20 million but coming fourth in the Olympic medal table in both Sydney and Athens, is perhaps the most dramatic example of a country with a strong sporting culture and government support outperforming what would be expected based on both population and GDP. The USA, Russia and Great Britain also outperform what would be expected from a model combining per capita GDP and population, while China outperforms expectations based on per capita GDP, but underperforms in relation to population.

Krishna and Haglund give an interesting perspective that success in the Olympics can be viewed as a more general indicator of the provision of opportunity to a country’s population. It is suggested that countries which enable a higher fraction of potential athletes to achieve the ultimate success of winning an Olympic medal are likely to be similarly successful in developing and fostering talent in other areas. Where the fraction of effective contestants for positions in national sports teams is very low, the prospects of social mobility generally are also likely to be disappointing. While this suggestion fails to consider factors such as government funding for sport, or indeed whether a country’s favourite participation sports are represented in the Olympics (India’s national passion of cricket is not), it is nevertheless an interesting idea for tracking changes in social mobility. It also suggests the view that we should look beyond poverty reduction as the end of development, and instead look also at individual access to opportunity – with sporting success as one possible indicator of this – as an alternative hallmark of development. Something to look out for in London 2012?


Why do some countries win more olympic medals? Lessons for social mobility and poverty reduction. Krishna, A.,Haglund, E. / Economic and Political Weekly, 2008, Vol. 43, No. 28, pp. 143-151, 10 ref.

The business of sports and the manufacturing of global social inequality. Manzenreiter, W. / Esporte e Sociedade, 2007, Vol. 2, No. 6, pp. 1-22, 25 ref.

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