Truii data visualisation, analysis and management Don McLeod of the Mayne Harriers Athletics Club running second in the Queensland Mile Championship at the Brisbane Exhibition Ground 1920s -crop

Greatest Olympic nation

Which is the greatest sporting nation? Based on the history of summer Olympic medals won, Finland is the greatest sporting nation, producing more medals per capita – 2.3 Olympic medals per million people.

What is a great sporting nations?

My view of a great sporting nation is not just the total number of winners but, the proportion of the population that are sporty. One way to approach this question of determining the greatest sporting nation is to consider the sporting participation rates for each country. However I found the sportiness by participation approach to be an unsatisfying data analysis process due to the lack of a consistent international database of participation rates. My real interest is in establishing a firm statistical basis from which to launch a sustained pub based parochial bragging session. To this end, we need a method of comparing countries. Whilst it is tempting to focus on team based sports such as Cricket, Football or Rugby; these sports are not universally played by all nations, and they tend to be male dominated sports. The summer Olympics on the other hand offers both men’s and women’s competitions across a large range of sports – giving every nation a chance to compete head to head.
A simple medal tally of the Olympics is not a fair method of comparison because not all countries have competed in all games. So firstly we produced a medal tally per appearance. To get rid of the small players we excluded countries who average less than 1 medal per games appearance. This reduces the number of contenders from 204 countries who have competed in the Olympics to 66 countries who average at least one medal per games appearance.
The average medals per games score is also not a fair basis for comparison, if simply for the huge discrepancy in the populations of different countries. It seems a little unfair to count the average medal tally of China against that of New Zealand. Hence we need to scale the average medal tally by the population to give a per capita representation. Finland (somewhat unexpectedly) tops out the most successful sporting nation with an average of 2.29 medals per million people each time it competes in the summer Olympics. Australia comes in at 22 (well after New Zealand at 13th). The big players who compete for the overall medal tally (USA, China, Russia) are well down the list with Russia coming in at 27th, USA 42nd, China 56th on a per capita basis.

Table 1: Top 20 performers: Average medal count per 1,000,000 population

Country Average number of medals per appearance per million population

Country Average number of medals per appearance per million population
1 Finland 2.29
2 Estonia 2.28
3 Hungary 1.93
4 Sweden 1.89
5 Belarus 1.58
6 Bulgaria 1.56
7 Jamaica 1.54
8 Slovenia 1.53
9 Georgia 1.34
10 Denmark 1.21
11 Norway 1.19
12 Cuba 0.97
13 New Zealand 0.97
14 Latvia 0.96
15 Croatia 0.91
16 Lithuania 0.90
17 Slovakia 0.89
18 Trinidad and Tobago 0.84
19 Czech Republic 0.83
20 Switzerland 0.83
21 Armenia 0.80
22 Australia 0.78
23 Romania 0.75
24 Mongolia 0.66
25 Netherlands 0.63
26 Kazakhstan 0.59
27 Russia 0.54
28 Azerbaijan 0.54
29 Ukraine 0.54
30 Belgium 0.50
31 Germany 0.48
32 Great Britain 0.45
33 Austria 0.38
34 Greece 0.38
35 France 0.37
36 Poland 0.35
37 Italy 0.35
38 Serbia 0.33
39 Canada 0.31
40 Ireland 0.30
41 South Korea 0.30
42 United States 0.29
43 North Korea 0.21
44 Japan 0.15
45 Kenya 0.14
46 Uzbekistan 0.13
47 Spain 0.13
48 Portugal 0.10
49 South Africa 0.08
50 Argentina 0.07
51 Chinese Taipei (Taiwan) 0.07
52 Turkey 0.05
53 Iran 0.05
54 Morocco 0.05
55 Ethiopia 0.04
56 China 0.04
57 Algeria 0.03
58 Brazil 0.03
59 Thailand 0.02
60 Mexico 0.02
61 Colombia 0.02
62 Egypt 0.01
63 Nigeria 0.01
64 Indonesia 0.01
65 India 0.001


I fully expected the list to be stacked with wealthy small nations like New Zealand at the top. My presumption was that being a world class athlete has a lot to do with opportunity. Wealthy nations can afford talent identification programs and sports clinics to find and train elite athletes, a luxury that poorer nations cannot afford. Figure 1 shows the failure of my hypothesis. There is no clear relationship between GDP and average number of medals per capita

Figure 1: Average number of medals per 1,000,000 versus GDP per person (2012 USDollars – GDP data source gapminder, Olympic medals data source: top-end sports)

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