The Olympic Prize

London 2012 is over and Rio 2016 approaches. More spectacular ceremonies and a parade of impressive record breaking sport performances are expected. But who will excel?

Brian Minikin, Lecturer in Sport Management

At the Athens Games in 2004, with around 301 Gold medals up for grabs, only 56 countries out of 202 were able to win a Gold Medal. In fact only 74 countries could win any medal, less than half of the competing nations. In Beijing, there were 302 Gold Medal events and 205 competing nations. This time only 54 Countries were able to win a gold with one country, Panama making it onto the Gold Medal winning list for the first time. 81 countries were able to grab a medal though, so while it seems that the rich are getting richer, the poor are starting to make headway. In London, the story was much the same. Out of 302 gold medal events, 54 countries were able to secure a gold medal with 85 countries winning a medal.

From Oceania, the hosts of the 2000 Olympic Games, Australia, finished 4th overall with 16 gold medals and 58 medals overall and maintained their position in Athens with 17 Gold, 16 silver and 16 bronze medals, an outstanding achievement. In Beijing, Australia dropped to 6th place with 14 gold, 15 silver and 17 bronze medals. A par performance one might say except that this time, the British finished ahead of Australia in 4th spot with 19 gold 13 silver and 15 bronze, perhaps a result of greater emphasis on sport as a result of winning the hosting rights for the 2012 Games. This trend continued into London with Great Britain moving into 3rd position with 29 gold, 17 silver and 19 Bronze, while Australia slipped to 10th with gold, 16 silver and 12 bronze.

Also with the emergence of China, Australia was bumped out of the top ten medal winning nations of all time in 2008 and still holds 11th place., behind Sweden and ahead of a rapidly improving Russia. It should be noted that the former Soviet Union and East Germany sit higher than Australia overall despite no longer competing.

In Athens, half of the Gold medals were secured by just 7 nations or about 3.4% of the competing nations while half of the overall medals won were secured by just 8 nations. In Beijing, half of the Gold medals were secured by 6 countries or 2.9% of the competing nations, the top 6 winning 52.6% of the available gold medals. The top eight countries won half of the overall medals available once again. For London, The top 5 countries won 50% of the medals available while 50% of the overall medals were won by 10 countries.

The pattern is very clear in that 50% of the total medal available are won by around 5% of the competing nations.

On the All Time medal table Australia holds 11th place with 138 Gold, 153 Silver and 177 Bronze. The Australians are still punching above their weight in world sport however now that the stimulus of hosting a Games appears to be wearing off, their standing in each edition is slowly slipping, while Brazil emerge as hosts to potentially fill the gap left by Australia. Greece are well down the list of all time medal winning nations but showed a significant spike in 2004 winning 6 gold, 6 silver and 4 bronze medals. Greece has not won gold since. Chine also peaked in winning gold when hosting the Games in 2008 winning 51 gold medals. China slipped back to second position in London with 38 gold medals but moved up from 12th – 5th place on the all time list since Athens 2004. The USA consistently finishes either first or second on the medal table and appears less affected by not hosting the Games than other countries. They have however topped the medal tally every time they have hosted them.

95 countries have won a gold medal at the Olympic Games which means 120 have not achieved this. (note their are 216 countries listed, 11 of which are no longer competing e.g. West Germany, East Germany, Soviet Union)

146 countries have won a medal which 70 Countries are yet to win a medal.

The USA has won 976 Gold medals or 20.3% of all gold medals ever won. They have won 2,400 (16.3%) medals overall. Great Britain, currently third overall have won 236 gold medals or 4.9% of the gold medals awarded and 780 medals overall or 5.3% of the medals awarded.

6 Countries have won half of all the gold medals ever awarded. The Soviet Union remains in second place even though they haven’t competed as a team since the Seoul Games.

The top 10 Medal winning nations up to and including London 2012 are:

United States 976 758 666 2400
Soviet Union 395 319 296 1010
Great Britain 236 272 296 780
France 202 223 246 671
China 201 144 128 473
Italy 198 166 185 549
Germany 174 182 217 573
Hungary 167 144 165 476
East Germany 153 129 127 409
Sweden 143 164 176 483

It is interesting to note that 9 of the top ten countries on the all time medal winning list have hosted the Olympic Games. In fact 15 of the top 20 nations have hosted the Games with Hungary the highest ranking nation not to have hosted a Games, followed by Romania, both former Eastern Bloc nations. The lowest ranking host nation is Mexico at 48 followed by Greece at 34 and Spain at 32.

It is all food for thought but no matter which way you look at it, unless you belong to a country that has a well organised and systematic sport program, or your athletes have open access to an organised and systematic sports system, medals at Olympic level are really hard to come by. When we look at the history of the Games and the medal winning performances at the Olympic Games, it is most likely that Rio 2016 will throw up a similar medal winning pattern with Brazil as host possibly threatening for a top 10 place although based on their London performances this does not appear to be very likely.

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