Newspaper headlines report the total medal count as the most noteworthy measure of a country’s success in the recent Olympic games. The top three were the US with 37, Germany with 30 and Canada with 26. This can be misleading, because the numbers don’t take into account the very different resources available to athletes from different countries. It’s like comparing athletics at a university that has a well-funded sports program and 30,000 students to that of a small college with 2000 students and no sports budget at all.  

I think it might be more revealing to compare medal counts in terms of population and availability of monetary support.  The ratio of medals per capita gives an indication of how much interest the people and athletes have in Olympic competition, while the ratio of medals per gross domestic product (GDP) gives a rough estimate of the monetary resources potentially available to support those athletes. 

Here are the winners:  The gold goes to Norway, whose athletes earned 4.6 medals per million population, and 51 medals per trillion dollars of GDP. The silver goes to Austria, with 2 and 40 medals respectively, and the bronze to Sweden with 1.2 and 27.5 medals. Switzerland is the runner up, with 1.3 and 18 medals. Canada, the host country, did pretty well, with 0.76 and 17.3 medals. How did the US do? Far back in the pack, I’m afraid, with 0.12 and 2.6 medals. China, with its vast population, was last in the per capita category, winning just 0.008 medals per million population, but matched the US performance in medals per GDP, with 2.7 per trillion dollars.

Kudos to the Scandinavians and Austrians! But why do they do so well? Probably the main factor is that their populations live in hilly countries with lots of snow, so more of their children grow up with winter sports. But is there more to the story? Why is it that their athletes are an order of magnitude ahead of the US in medals per capita and medals per GDP dollar?