Olympic Rank

The Economics of Olympic Rank

For most, the Olympics is just a huge sporting event. But for some, it is more than that. Some sport pundits love to compare nations’ status in the Olympic medal table with the level of their global power. At some stage, during the cold war, the relative power of United States and Soviet Union were usually evaluated by the number of (Gold, Silver and Bronze) medals they scored in the Olympics. In the last three Olympics though, it has been China and America competing for the supremacy in the biggest event of the globe.

World’s Largest Economies in 2012 by GDP in Trillion of USD – Source: CNN

In the twenty eighth Olympiad in Athens, 2004, America finished the game top. Then China took over the crown in 2008 hosting the event at home in Beijing. At the Beijing Olympiad, pundits were perplexed with the final medal tally showing the decline of the US, while a new power in Asia, China with its robust economic growth surprised the whole world rising on top. This was indicative of the inevitable rise of China to throne, perhaps commanding a new world order in the near future. Again now, in London 2012, commentators seem further vindicated. As China’s rate of economic growth started slowing down, America retained its leading place in the game.

In addition to their competitive sport culture, American’s huge spending in the sport industry can not be ignored. Investinganswers.com reports “US Olympic committee shelled out more than 232 million USD in 2008 to help American athletes win 110 medals in Beijing. That is 2.1 million USD per medal. This does not include cash kicked in by each sport’s governing body from sponsors, donors and special events.” This shows the emphasis the sporting industry has in America. The contribution of China’s state-funded sport academies to the newly emerging talented athletes has also become apparent. Thus, in light of the huge funding these two countries made to the preparations for the Olympiads, the results they usually have at the end may not be surprising. Even in the London Olympic, the correlation between countries’ economic power and medal winning success holds true at large. Seven of the 10 largest economies in the world (U.S, China, U.K, Russia, Germany, France and Italy) are in top 10 in London.

A different view

Here is the question. How much does the medal tally really say about Olympic success? There are debates on the assessment of nations’ status based on just the number of medals they win. Even in Ethiopia, many feel that their Olympic team record deserve better recognition considering the lesser number of athletes they utilize and the fewer sport disciplines they usually participate in.

Some argue that determining countries status solely by medal count is unfair, given the enormous disparities between nations. Unless we see from different angles, the biggest countries keep coming at the top. There is a high possibility that the kinds of USA, China, Great Britain, Russia, Germany and others carry on enjoying their Olympic status.

However, how will the medal table look if we take into account countries Gross Domestic Product (GDP), population size and team size (number of athletes in each team)? Here the result we get look more interesting. Guardian.co.uk used a team of statisticians to come up with a new way of medal ranking.

According to “Alternative Medal Ranking” document from Guardian, Ethiopia, which was placed 24th in the official medal table, would climb up to the top 10 list if GDP was taken into consideration. Actually this is just indicative of Ethiopia’s small GDP. While comparing the Olympic medal tables against the respective GDP of countries, it is stunning to see which country takes the lead. It is a country that was originally listed 50th in the official ranking along with Algeria, Bahamas, Uganda and Venezuela. This country is Grenada which won its first ever [Gold] medal in the men’s 400m competition. This achievement was good enough for the island country to take the number one spot in London 2012 Olympic. In this alternative ranking Jamaica (18th), North Korea (20th), Mongolia (56th) and Armenia (60th) take the top five as the Olympic powerhouses. The GDP based rank puts Grenada, Jamaica, N. Korea, Mongolia, Georgia, Kenya, Montenegro, Belarus, Armenia and Ethiopia in the top 10 places, respectively.

When we look the other ranking table that is produced based on countries’ population size, the first two leading nations are those who took the same spot in the GDP ranking. Next to Grenada (with estimated population size of 110,000) and Jamaica (around three million), countries that managed to be in the top ten are New Zealand, Cyprus, Slovenia, Denmark, Estonia, Australia, Hungary and Croatia, in that order. If you start to look for the usual Olympic superpowers, you need to scroll further down in this particular ranking table. UK, Russia, USA and China have been placed 20th, 34th, 47th and 73th respectively.

The one who wants to see Ethiopia’s rank in population size based Olympic medal table should get down further to 67th place. Ethiopians neighbouring rival, Kenya sit at a relatively better rank, 52nd.

Team size is also another factor in measuring a country’s success in the Olympics. Some academicians believe that this factor is more convincing than the previous ones given that the country’s GDP and population size have some sort of linear relationship. Nevertheless considering the number of athletes each country registered for the event seems the better approach to measure the result of each country in the global sporting event.

The Ethiopian team, criticized by local media for taking more non-athletes than athletes to London, gets the sixth place, one upper than Kenyans, in the team size based ranking. The number of non-athletes, who went to London ironically, benefited the country to claim better rank in this context.

This team size based alternative measurement tool makes China by far the best performer from the participants. Jamaica retains the second place, that they maintained in the GDP and population based ranking. Iran, Botswana and USA come next, respectively.

All these factors might be considered as an excuse by some Olympic teams ranked relatively well comparing their official medal status. Others may prefer to ignore this alternative ranking by choosing to be judged by the usual medal counting method. The former one seems relatively fair approach to evaluate countries status from different angles. But the latter, official medal ranking, always tells us the same story. The biggest economies always come out on top. This is even demonstrated at the lately ended Summer Paralympics Game medal table, where six of the world’s top eight leading economies (China, Russia, Great Britain, United States, Brazil and Germany) completed the game in the top eight ranks.

Abiy Wendifraw

Abiy Wendifraw


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