A Geographical Overview of Olympic Success Levels from 1896 to 2012

Adrian Kavanagh, 5th August 2016

The (modern) Olympic Games have been in existence since 1896, with the Summer Games having been held every four years since then with the notable exceptions of 1916, 1940 and 1944, when the Games had to be cancelled due to World Wars I and II. The Games obviously share a similar global remit to the (Soccer) World Cup. However, while the World Cup has now been held in every continent across the globe (and have taken place on a number of occasions in South America), the Olympic Games have yet to be hosted by an African state while 2016 will mark the first occasion that the Games have been hosted by a South American state. Success levels in the Games also vary notably across the globe, with the more developed continents of North America and Europe having dominated the medals table for much of the history of the modern Olympics. However – especially given the growing strength of China in recent years – Asia has developed into a notably stronger region in terms of Olympic success levels during the 2000s, while a number of African states have developed niches in a number of Olympic events; most notably the long distance running events. By contrast, South America – which is one of the two continents to dominate the (soccer) World Cup – has fared relatively poorly in terms of success levels/the numbers of medals attained throughout the history of the Games and ranks even lower than Oceania in this regard.

Since 1896, North America has accounted for 24.0% of all of the gold medals won at the (Summer) Olympic Games held across this period, but South America has accounted for just 1.1% of all of these gold medals wins. Europe, however, has been the most successful continent by far in this regard, with European states (including the Former Soviet states) accounting for 59.2% of all gold medals wins at the Summer Games between 1896 and 2012. When gold medals wins for Australia and New Zealand (3.8% of the total) are also factored in, this means that the most economically developed continents (Oceania, North America and Europe) account for well over five-sixths (87.0%) of all of the gold medal won at Summer Olympic Games between 1896 and 2012. (NB: North America here includes Central American states such as Jamaica and Trinidad, which would be considered to be part of the “global South” – however the vast bulk of North American Olympic medal wins are accounted for by the USA.) Asia, the largest continent in the world (by some distance) in population terms, has accounted for less than ten percent (9.8%) of all the Summer Olympic gold medals wins since the modern Games started in 1896. In a similar vein, African states have only accounted for 2.1% of all gold medals wins since 1896.

However, the number of Asian and African medals wins have improved quite notably at recent Games, with the number of medals won by Asian states accounting for 17.5% of all medals win at the 2004 Games, 19.1% of all medals win at the 2008 Games (hosted in Beijing) and 20.9% of all medals win at the 2012 London Games. Between 1896 and 1936, only 1.7% of Olympic medals were won by Asian athletes, but the proportion of Olympic medals wins accounted for by Asian states increased to 7.7% for the period between 1952 and 1992 and increased further to 17.2% for the period between 1996 and 2012. African success levels have also increased over time at the (Summer) Olympic Games, but definitely not to the same extent as the level of improvement evidenced for Asia (and particularly for China). Between 1896 and 1936, only 1.2% of Olympic medals were won by African athletes, but the proportion of Olympic medals wins accounted for by African states increased to 1.8% for the period between 1952 and 1992 and increased further to 3.8% for the period between 1996 and 2012. As the global South increases its levels of success at Olympic Games, there has been a resultant decline in term of the proportion of medal win accounted for by the “global North”. North America, Europe and Oceania combined accounted for 96.1% of all medal wins at Summer Olympic Games between 1896 and 1936, but the proportion of medals wins by these continents fell to 89.4% for the period between 1952 and 1992 and to 76.1% for the period between 1996 and 2012.

The most successful state, by some distance, in the history of the Summer Olympic Games has been the United States of America (USA); a state that will in all likelihood win its one thousandth gold medal at a Summer Games at some stage during the upcoming Rio Games. Throughout the history of the Summer Olympic Games, the USA has won nearly one-sixth (16.4%) of all the medals that have been contested at these games. This is a remarkable achievement, especially given that this country’s boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games did limit its potential number of win to a significant degree. Against that, the USA’s medals figure haul is notably over-inflated by the large (239) number of medals won by that state at the 1904 St. Louis Games – 86.0% of all the medals won at those Games. The proportion of Summer Olympic Games medals won by the USA has declined over time. Between 1896 and 1936, the USA won 27.4% of the medals being contested at the Summer Olympic Games, but this percentage fell to 16.9% for the Games held between 1952 and 1992 and to 11.8% for the Games held between 1996 and 2012. In more recent Games – such as Sydney (10.2%), Athens (11.0%), Beijing (11.4%) and London (10.8%), the percentage of Summer Olympic Games medals won by the USA has stood just above the ten percent level.

It would be remiss not to note that the United States’ position of dominance has been challenged by other states at different periods across the history of the modern Olympic Games. At the very first Games in 1896, the hosts, Greece, won more than twice as many medals as the USA did, with the number of medals won by the USA also falling well behind the numbers won by hosts, France, at the 1900 Games, hosts, Great Britain and Ireland, at the 1908 Games and hosts, Sweden, at the 1912 Games. During the Cold War period (covering the Games between 1952-1992), the USA vied for dominance with the Soviet Union – with the sporting rivalries between the two superpowers probably acting as a proxy for the “cold conflict” that existed between these states across a period of four decades. Indeed, the Soviet Union actually won a slightly larger percentage (17.4%) of Olympic medals than the level won by the USA across this period – in effect, probably winning the sporting Cold War (just about), but ultimately not the political conflict. With the end of the Cold War and the somewhat declining fortunes of the Former Soviet bloc – although the Former Soviet states were still strong enough to account for 17.0% of medal wins at the 2012 London Games – a new superpower has emerged to challenge the USA’s dominance. This is China. In historical terms, the levels of success for China have been limited by the fact that this state did not compete at the Olympics across all of the Games held between 1896 and 1980, which is a key factor as to why this country only ranks as 7th overall in terms of success levels at the modern Olympic Games behind the USA, the Soviet Union/the Former Soviet bloc, Germany, Great Britain and Northern Ireland, France and Italy. However, China has emerged as one of the strongest states in the world in terms of medal wins at the most recent series of Summer Olympic Games. At the 2008 Games (which were, of course, hosted by Beijing) and the 2012 games, China has won roughly one tenth of all the Olympic Games medals being contested, a level that now falls only slightly behind that of the United States. Indeed, China won a much larger number of gold medals (51) at the 2008 Beijing Games than the USA (36) did, although the USA (46) pulled ahead of China (38) once again in terms of gold medal wins at the 2012 London Games.

Overall, since 1896 a total of almost fifteen thousand medals have been awarded at the (Summer) Olympic Games. The United States of America, as noted above, have won nearly one-sixth of all these medals (16.4%). Russia/the Soviet Union account for over one tenth of these medals (10.4%), a notable level given that it was not until the 1952 Olympics that they began to figure prominently on the Olympics medal table. The next most successful country in Olympic history has been Germany, accounting for nearly nine percent of all Olympic medals (8.8%) throughout the history of the Summer games. However, while the success levels of the former Soviet Union states declined somewhat following the break-up of the the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, the reunification of Germany in 1990 resulted in a notable decline in German Olympic medals. Sometimes, as regards Olympic medals the sum is greater than the parts, but sometimes the parts are greater than the sum! The other states to fill the Top 10 in terms of the number of Summer Olympic medals won across the history of the Games are, in order, Great Britain and Northern Ireland, France, Italy, China, Hungary and Sweden, although Australia (in 11th position) could well usurp the Swedes’ position on this table in the very near future. China are ranked in 8th position, but this (as noted earlier) is down to the fact that China did not begin to contest for Olympic medals until the 1984 games. If one was to look at recent contests only, then China would be second only to the United States of America in terms of total Olympic medal wins.

At the other extreme, over sixty countries have yet to win an Olympic medal across this history of the Games. In addition to this, there are twenty five states that have just won one Olympic medal across the history of the Games. As of now, this list includes a number of Central American states, including Barbados, Bermuda and Grenada, Paraguay in South America, Cyprus in Europe in addition to a few of the Former Yugoslav republics/provinces, (Montenegro, Macedonia and Kosovo), Bahrain and Iraq in Asia, Tonga in Oceania and a number of African states, including Gabon, Cote D’Ivoire, Eritrea, Burundi, Niger, Senegal and Togo. (Cote D’Ivoire would go on to win two medals at Rio 2016, including a gold and bronze medal in Taekwondo. Bahrain also won two medals – a gold and a silver – in the athletics.)

An interesting trend in terms of Olympic success levels – as already illustrated above – relates to the boost that these award to the host state in terms of increased success levels/medal wins, if not in terms of economic growth. Nearly all of the states that have hosted the Olympics – both in the early history of the modern Games and in more recent times (with the exception perhaps of Canada in 1976) – have achieved their most successful, or one of their most successful, Games tally in terms of medal wins in the year that they hosted the Games. Indeed, in more recent times the number of Olympic medal wins can also be seen to be increasing in the Games prior to a state’s hosting of Olympics and in the Games held immediately afterwards. Greece, for instance, won 46 medals at the first Olympic Games in 1896, then won just 21 medals at the Games held between 1900 and 1992. The Greeks were to notably increase their number of Olympic medal wins in the two Games held (1996 and 2000) prior to Athens’ hosting of the 2004 Games, with the number of medals wins peaking (at 16) at these 2004 Games, before declining notably at the subsequent 2008 (4 medals) and 2012 (2 medals) Games.

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3 Responses to “A Geographical Overview of Olympic Success Levels from 1896 to 2012”

  1. A Geographical Perspective on Medal Wins at the 2016 Olympic Games | Adrian Kavanagh's Blog Says:

    […] Blog posts from Adrian Kavanagh on the Eurovision Song Contest, sports and other entities! « A Geographical Overview of Olympic Success Levels from 1896 to 2012 […]

  2. A Geographical Overview of (Summer) Olympic Game medal win levels (1896-2012) | Eye on the World Says:

    […] Adrian Kavanagh (An earlier version of this post may be viewed on Adrian Kavanagh blog site.) […]

  3. The 2016 Rio Olympic Games: A Geographical Perspective on Medal Win Levels | Eye on the World Says:

    […] 2016 (Summer) Olympic Games concluded last night in Rio de Janeiro. Trends observed at previous Summer Games in terms of medal wins/success levels were also observed at the Rio Games, although there were some notable deviations from these trends, […]

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