A Geographical Perspective on Medal Wins at the 2016 Olympic Games

Adrian Kavanagh, 22nd August 2016

The 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, most notably in relation to the performance of Great Britain in outperforming their strong success levels at the 2012 Games, which were hosted by London.

The USA continued to be the most successful state at the Summer Games in terms of medal wins. Indeed, the USA won their 1,000th Summer Olympics gold medal ever during the Rio Games. At the 2016 Games, the USA won 121 medals; amounting to 12.4% of all the medals being contested at these Games. This amounted to the USA’s highest percentage of medal wins at a Summer Games in 24 years – effectively being their best performance in terms of medal wins at a Summer Games since the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona (when the USA accounted for 13.3% of all medal wins). The next most successful state in these Games in terms of the medal table was Great Britain, with 67 medals and 27 gold medals, edging that state narrowly ahead of China, which accounted for 70 medal wins but just 26 gold medal wins. Russia and Germany completed the Top 5 in terms of the Rio Games medal table, although France were to win as many medals at these games as Germany did. In all, 86 states won medals at the 2016 (Summer) Olympic Games, with medals also being won (one gold and old bronze medal) by the Independent Olympic Athletes grouping.

Figure 1: Number of (Summer) Olympic Games medal wins between 1984-2016 by states that have hosted the Games across that period

Figure 1: Number of (Summer) Olympic Games medal wins between 1984-2016 by states that have hosted the Games across that period

The 2016 Games marked yet another instance in which the Hosts achieved one of their strongest ever performances at a (Summer) Olympic Games. As Figure 1 shows, Brazil achieved their best ever medal-winning performance over the past nine Olympic Games in Rio; indeed the Rio Games amounted to Brazil’s greatest ever performance in terms of medal-wins at the Olympic Games. The general trend in terms of medal wins over the past few decades, reflecting trends at earlier Olympic Games as discussed in the previous post,  has been for Host states to generally perform very well at the Games that they are hosting. Indeed Host states generally tend to win their biggest number of Olympic medal wins at the Games that they are hosting, as is also evident in the figures above for the USA (1984), South Korea (1988), Spain (1992), Australia (2000), Greece (2004) and China (2008) (Figure 1). There are some exceptions to this rule. The USA’s number of medal wins at the 1996 Games in Atlanta actually paled in comparison with that state’s number of medal wins at other Games across the 1984-2016 period. The other notable exception here relates to Great Britain. That country achieved a notable increase in their number of medal wins when hosting the Games in London, but also increased that number of medal wins further at the following Games in Rio. Indeed, Great Britain became the first state ever in the history of the modern Olympic Games to win more medals at the Games held immediately after a state has hosted the Games.

Overall, however, the general trend is for states to peak their medal win numbers at the Games that they host. Looking at trends for states which hosted the Games between 1992 and 2008 (Spain, the USA, Australia, Greece and China), the average number of medal wins for these states at the Games held eight years before they hosted the Games was 38.4 medals, with this average number of medal wins increasing to 45.8 medal wins for the Games held just before they hosted the Games. These states’ medal win levels peaked, on average, at the Games which they hosted, with an average number of 59.4 medal wins at these Games. Medal win numbers tended to decline, on average, in the Games held after a state hosted the Games, albeit with levels remains somewhat higher than in the Games preceding the hosted Games. At the Games held immediately after they hosted the Games, the average number of medal wins for these states (Spain, the USA, Australia, Greece and China) fell to 50.4 medals, with that average number of medal wins falling further to 46.2 medal wins at the next Games after these. As will be noted below, the next country to host the Games (Japan) has experienced a notable increase in medal win levels at the Games immediately preceding the Games (Tokyo 2020) that they will be hosting.

What global trends can be observed in terms of Olympic medal wins, with specific reference to these Games? Well, a review of the countries that won the largest number of medals at the Rio Games will suggest that countries with larger population tends to fare better at the Games that those with smaller populations. This is not a hard and fast rule, however. While the country with the largest population in the globe, China, ranks highly on the Rio 2016 Olympics medal table, the next largest state, India, was only ranked in joint 67th place on this table with two medal wins (and no gold medal win). While two other states among the globe’s ten largest states (in population terms) figured strongly in the Rio 2016 medals table (the USA and Russia), other members of this group of larger states (Indonesia, Mexico, Nigeria) won relatively few medals at the Rio Games, while two of these states (Pakistan and Bangladesh) failed to win any medals. Other large countries (in population terms) that failed to win medals at the Rio Games included the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania, Myanmar and Sudan. (Against this trend, some of the smallest states on the globe (in population terms) – Grenada, the Bahamas, Fiji, Estonia, Trinidad and Tobago and Bahrain – succeeded in winning medals at these games.)

Drilling further into these numbers, it can be seen that larger countries (in terms of population levels) in the developed world generally tended to fare well in terms of Olympic medal wins in Rio, but the same rule did not apply to large states in the developing world, as evidenced in the previous point. The differences in medal win levels between developed states/the “Global North” and developing states/the “Global South” is well evident in the fact that developed states/the “Global North” accounted for 74.3% of all medal wins at the Rio Games; almost three-quarters of all the medals won at these Games. This level actually marks a rather lower level of medal win success for developed states/the “Global North” as contrasted with the overall trend observed across the history of the (modern) Summer Olympic Games. Since 1896, developed states/the “Global North” have accounted for over five in six (86.4%) of all the medals won at these all of these Games. The number of medal wins by developing states/the “Global South” amounted to a level of around ten percent for most of the history of the modern Games, but the number of medals wins by these states increased from the 1980s onwards in lines with improving success levels for African states, such as Kenya and Ethiopia, in the athletics and the emergence of China as an Olympic superpower.

So levels of economic development do appear to have a significant bearing on the ability of states to win significant numbers of Olympic medals. For instance, the improvement in Great Britain’s medal win levels in the run up to the 2012 London Games, with this continuing into the 2016 Games in Rio, is largely down to an increased level of investment into Olympic sportswomen/sportsmen, linked to an injection of cash from the National Lottery funds. This level of investment would be beyond the means of the world’s poorest states, although some developing states can translate a natural ability in certain sports (as for instance in the cases of Kenya/Ethiopia and long distance running) into significant medal wins. However, GDP per capita is not necessarily a good predictor of Olympic success levels.  A number of the states with the highest GDP per capita levels on the globe – namely Luxembourg, Brunei, Kuwait, San Marino, Iceland and Oman – failed to wins medals at the 2016 Rio Games, while a number of other states that fell into this group of high GDP per capita states – such as Qatar – only won one medal at the Games. As all of these are very small states, this could suggest that the size of a state’s economy could amount to a better predictor of Olympic Games success levels. This is borne out by the fact that nearly all of the states with the largest economies on the globe (in terms of Total GDP levels) figured on the Rio 2016 medals table – the only exception really being Saudi Arabia (with 20th largest economy on the globe). Indeed, nearly all of the states accounting for the fifteen largest economies on the globe – with the exceptions of India and Mexico – figure prominently on the Rio 2016 medals table, with the ten top ten countries on the Rio medals table being drawn exclusively from this list of states. (By contrast, the states with the smallest economies to win Olympic medals at the Rio Games included Grenada, Burundi, Fiji, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova and Tajikistan.)

1896_1936 1952_1992 1996_2016 2008 2012 2016
 USA/Canada 29.8% 18.4% 13.7% 13.3% 12.7% 14.7%
 Mexico/Central America 0.6% 2.3% 4.5% 4.7% 4.6% 3.4%
 South America 1.0% 1.1% 2.4% 2.7% 3.1% 3.5%
 Europe 64.4% 64.9% 52.0% 50.4% 50.3% 50.7%
 Africa 1.2% 1.8% 3.9% 4.2% 3.4% 4.6%
 Oceania 1.4% 3.8% 5.5% 5.7% 5.0% 4.8%
 Asia 1.7% 7.7% 18.0% 19.1% 20.9% 18.1%
 Global “North” 97.0% 90.4% 74.2% 72.0% 71.9% 74.3%

Table 1: Percentage of (Summer) Olympic Games medal wins by continent/region, 1986-2016

Table 1 highlights the impact of economic development levels on Olympic medal win levels, showing the dominance here of Europe, but also North America – or rather the USA and Canada – Oceania (in particular Australia and New Zealand) and Japan. The level of dominance by the countries of the developed world, or the Global “North”, has declined somewhat during the 1990s and 2000s, especially given the rise of China as an Olympic Superpower and the growing dominance of long-distance running athletics events by east African countries, such as Kenya and Ethiopia. But, despite these recent trends, Table 1 shows that the states of the Global “North” came close to accounting for three-quarters of the medals won at the Rio 2016 Games, even though the vast majority of the world’s population is resident in the developing world, or the Global “South”.

A number of states notably increased their number of medal wins at the Rio Games relative to the number of medals that they won at any of the four previous Games (Sydney 2000, Athens 2004, Beijing 2008 and London 2012). The most notable improvement here related to the USA, with that state winning 11 more medals that the number that they won at their best performance (110 medals at Beijing 2008) across the four previous Games. Other states that fell into this group (in order of improvement levels) were to include Azerbaijan (8 more medals than in their best performance at the four previous Games), Uzbekistan (7), Denmark (6), New Zealand (5), Croatia (4), Serbia (4), South Africa (4), Kazakhstan (4), Canada (4), Japan (3), Brazil (2), Cote d’Ivoire (2), Great Britain (2) and Malaysia (2). There is no particularly striking geography emerging here, although the list does include a number of Former Soviet states, as well as the most recent Hosts of the Games and the next state (Japan) to host the Games.

By contrast, some states experienced a notable decline in their medal winning performances at the Rio Games relative to their performances across the four previous Games. Russia, for instance, won 17 fewer medals than the lowest number of medals that they had won (73 in Beijing 2008) across the four previous Games. Other states that fell into this group (in order of improvement levels) were to include Ukraine (9 fewer medals than in their worst performance at the four previous Games), South Korea (7), Australia (6), Cuba (3), Belarus (3), Romania (3) and Latvia (2). As well as including a number of countries that hosted the Games in the not-too-distant past (Australia and South Korea possibly still on a “come down” after the highs experienced in terms of medal wins at the Games that these states hosted), this list also includes quite a number of Former Communist states.

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One Response to “A Geographical Perspective on Medal Wins at the 2016 Olympic Games”

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

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

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