Updated version following the end of the Olympic Games.
It is no surprise that the United States and China feature at the top of the 2016 Olympic medal league table. With populations of 324 million and 1.34 billion they have enormous numbers to draw on when searching for athletic talent. Smaller countries like Grenada and the Bahamas, with populations of 107,000 and 393,000, cannot possibly compete.
To level the playing field we took the total number of medals by country and divided them by national populations. Unsurprisingly, many populous nations slipped heavily in the ranking.
The biggest slider was China, which slipped from 2nd to 69th place. Next in the race down the ranking were host country Brazil, down 52 places from 14th to 66th, and Japan, down 37 places from 5th to 42nd.
The two biggest gainers were the small Caribbean countries of Grenada, up 64 places from 65th to 1st, and the Bahamas, up 58 places from 60th to 2rd. Not far behind was New Zealand, which rose 13 places from 16th to 3rd.
The original top 5 nations
1. United States – 93 medals (population 324 million)
2. China – 54 medals (population 1,382 million)
3. Great Britain – 51 medals (population 65 million)
4. Russia – 41 medals (population 143 million)
5. Japan – 33 medals (population 126 million)
The top 5 after adjusting for population
1. Grenada – 1 medal (population 107 thousand)
2. Bahamas – 1 medal (population 393 thousand)
3. New Zealand – 11 medals (population 4.6 million)
4. Jamaica – 6 medals (population 2.8 million)
5. Slovenia – 4 medals (population 2.1 million)
Switzerland’s 5 medals so far, 2 gold, 1 silver and 2 bronze, rank it 32nd. After adjusting for population (8.4 million), it rises 8 spots to 24th. Switzerland won golds in road cycling and rowing, a silver in tennis, and bronzes in gymnastics and shooting.
Some populous countries win few medals despite their numbers. India is the most notable. Despite a population of 1.33 billion, it has picked up only 1 bronze medal. This was enough to send it down 9 places to the very bottom of the population-adjusted ranking. While India’s ranking might improve if cricket were added to the Olympics, it seems population is no guarantee of success.
India’s star tennis player Sania Mirza and Switzerland’s Martina Hingis were an unbeatable doubles pair not long ago. Martina along with Timea Bacsinszky managed to win a silver olympic medal for Switzerland. Sania Mirza and her doubles tennis partner had no such luck winning one for India.
The nation in the original top five, which slid the least after adjusting for population was Great Britain, sliding only 14 places. China (-67), Japan (-37), United States (-37) and Russia (-35) all dropped substantially more.
The medal rankings data used was taken at 5pm CEST time on Thursday, so the medal tally will continue to grow and the rankings change. Population figures were taken from United Nations data. The adjusted ranking is based on total medals divided by national population. Countries that have won no medals were excluded.
Population-adjusted medal rankings for 2016 Olympics
Population is only one factor behind Olympic success. The amount invested in training and support of athletes is another important factor. Culture, geography, political stability and climate play a big part too.