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Medals by numbers: Which nations have improved the most at the Olympics, and where does India rank?

A detailed analysis on how the usual suspects have performed in the last 10 Olympics and where India stands in comparison.

abhinav bindra
Abhinav Bindra won the gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics

Over the years, the Olympic Games have become more than just a sporting event. Countries take great pride in hosting the event, which sometime leads to a significant improvement in infrastructure and public morale, while some argue that the costs involved in hosting an Olympic Games simply do not justify the benefits, exemplified by the fact the debt created by the Montreal Olympics of 1976 was only repaid in 2006.

The United States led a boycott of the Moscow Olympics in 1980 on political grounds, while the Soviet Union return the favour four years later at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984. There is no doubt that Olympic successes and failures are coming to be considered as a gentle indication of the world order.

Let us use the Rio Olympics of 2016 as an opportunity to look back at the most improved nations of the last 10 Olympics. You can decide if the analysis has any correlation to the existing global socio-eco-political scenario.

For the purposes of this exercise, only the top 20 nations that lead the overall tally of medals across Olympics (and India) have been considered. These 20 nations, in order of overall medals, are United States (2399 medals), Russia, including the Soviet Union (1517), Germany, including East and West Germany (1304), Great Britain (780), France (671), Italy (549), Sweden (483), Hungary (476), China (473), Australia (468), Japan (398), Finland (302), Romania (301), Canada (279), Poland (271), Netherlands (266), South Korea (243), Bulgaria (214), Cuba (209) and Switzerland (185).

India, with a total of 26 Olympic medals, is 51st on the overall list.

Since the number of medals that are up for grabs varies in each Olympic Games (usually due to the addition of events), the extent to which a nation has been dominant in past years can only be ascertained by analysing the percentage of medals won by that nation, and not the absolute number of medals.

For e.g Switzerland finished 11th in the 1952 Olympics after winning only two gold medals (which was 1.3% of the 149 gold medals available), but no country with two gold medals finished any higher than 26th (Belarus) in the 2012 Olympics (where 2 gold medals only amounted to 0.7% of the 300 gold medals that could have been won).

Percentage of Gold Medals won by Nations in the last 10 Olympics

Country / Olympics1976198019841988199219962000200420082012
USA17DNP3715141612121215
Russia2539DNP23171011987
Germany25238201374454
Great Britain232220.543610
France1323364424
Italy1463254333
Sweden22100.50.51100.5
Hungary23DNP5433313
ChinaDNPDNP72669111713
Australia0121335653
Japan5DNP42112532
Finland2220.50.50.50.500.50
Romania2393224311
Canada0DNP41311110.5
Poland42DNP1132111
Netherlands0021124122
South Korea1DNP35533344
Bulgaria34DNP41120.50.50
Cuba34DNPDNP53430.52
Switzerland11000.520.50.511
India00.50000000.50

Percentage of Total Medals won by Nations in the last 10 Olympics

Country / Olympics1976198019841988199219962000200420082012
USA15DNP2513131210111211
Russia2031DNP18148101088
Germany21209191086545
Great Britain2353323357
France2242444444
Italy2252244433
Sweden123221110.51
Hungary45DNP3432212
ChinaDNPDNP547667109
Australia1142356554
Japan4DNP52322434
Finland1120.50.50.50.50.20.50.5
Romania4483223211
Canada2DNP61232122
Poland45DNP2222111
Netherlands10.521223222
South Korea1DNP35433333
Bulgaria47DNP522110.50.2
Cuba23DNPDNP433332
Switzerland10.510.50.1110.510.5
India00.20000.10.10.10.30.6

Dragons and Kangaroos most improved

In order to determine the degree of improvement of a certain team over the last 10 Olympic Games, we could have compared the team’s performance in the 2012 Olympics to its own performance in the 1976 Olympics. However, that may not give us an accurate assessment because a certain nation could simply have had an exceptional 2012 Olympics and a terrible outing in 1976.

Therefore, in order to ascertain the degree of improvement more realistically, the performance of a team in the “Last Five Olympics” (i.e. 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2012) has been compared to its performance in the “First Five Olympics” (i.e. 1976, 1980, 1984, 1988 and 1992).

For e.g. in the First Five Olympics, Great Britain won 2%, 3%, 5%, 3% and 3% respectively of the total medals, which means that, on average, Great Britain won 3.2% of the total medals each Olympics. In the Last Five Olympics, they won 2%, 3%, 3%, 5% and 7% of the total medals, thereby averaging 4% of the total medals at each Olympics.

Therefore, we know that Great Britain has, on average, a positive difference of 0.8 (“Improvement Factor”) between the percentage of total medals won during each the Last Five Olympics and the First Five Olympics.

Extending this methodology to all nations will let us determine which team has been the most improved over the Last Five Olympics. In terms of gold medals, it was seen that China has an Improvement Factor of 6.2, far better than any other nation. Australia is next with an Improvement Factor of 3.

However, in terms of overall medals, Australia has the best Improvement Factor of 2.8, closely following by China with 2.3. This essentially tells us that China have been winning a much larger percentage of gold medals than Australia, something that was exemplified by the Sydney Olympics of 2000 where both China and Australia won exactly 58 medals, but China finished third and Australia fourth because China had 28 gold medals, significantly more than Australia’s 16.

Top 5 Most Improved Nations (Total Medals)

Rank

Country

Avg % of total medals in each of First Five Olympics

Avg % of total medals in each of Last Five Olympics

Improvement Factor

1

Australia

2.2

5.0

2.8

2

China

5.3

7.6

2.3

3

France

2.8

4.0

1.2

4

Italy

2.6

3.6

1.0

5

Netherlands

1.3

2.2

0.9

India

0.04

0.24

0.2

Top 5 Most Improved Nations (Gold Medals)

Rank

Country

Avg % of gold medals in each of First Five Olympics

Avg % of gold medals in each of Last Five Olympics

Improvement Factor

1

China

5.0

11.2

6.2

2

Australia

1.4

4.4

3.0

3

Great Britain

2.2

4.7

2.5

4

France

2.4

4.0

1.6

5

Netherlands

0.8

2.2

1.4

India

0.1

0.1

0.0

USA – The hit and miss paradox

The United States have topped the medals tally in each of the Last Five Olympics, except the Beijing Olympics in 2008 which was won by China [even there, USA (110) had more medals than China (100), but China had more golds (51 to USA’s 36)]. Despite USA’s extreme dominance over the Last Five Olympics, they are still the least improved nation.

During the First Five Olympics, the United States used to, on average, won 16.5% of the total medals and 16.6% of the gold medals. Over the Last Five Olympics, this has dropped to 11.2% and 13.4% respectively, giving them a negative Improvement Factor in respect to total medals (-5.3) as well as gold medals (-3.2), both of which are the worst for any nation, excluding Russia and Germany (because they did not compete as a single nation in all the Olympics).

5 Least Improved Nations (Total Medals)

Rank

Country

Avg % of total medals in each of First Five Olympics

Avg % of total medals in each of Last Five Olympics

Improvement Factor

1

United States

16.5

11.2

-5.3

2

Bulgaria

4.5

0.9

-3.6

3

Romania

4.2

1.8

-2.4

4

Hungary

4.0

2.0

-2.0

5

Poland

3.3

1.4

-1.9

– 

India

0.04

0.24

0.2

5 Least Improved Nations (Gold Medals)

Rank

Country

Avg % of gold medals in each of First Five Olympics

Avg % of gold medals in each of Last Five Olympics

Improvement Factor

1

United States

16.6

13.4

-3.2

2

Bulgaria

3.0

0.8

-2.2

3

Romania

3.8

2.2

-1.6

4

Cuba

4.0

2.5

-1.5

5

Canada

2.0

0.9

-1.1

India

0.1

0.1

0.0

Curiously, despite having won a greater percentage of medals during the First Five Olympics, the United States only won the Los Angeles Olympics of 1984, with the others four Olympics Games being won by the Soviet Union. Therefore, it can safely be said that United States’ poor Improvement Factor has nothing to do with its own downfall, but more to do with the rapid improvement of other nations, which has resulted in more even competition.

The same cannot be said of the other nations in the above tables, most of which are Eastern European nations, whose sporting decline has coincided with their waning political significance post the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989.

As far as India is concerned, it can be seen that despite the jump in medals won by the country across the last 10 editions, the other nations have improved much more. India is not ranked anywhere near the top in the list of most improved nations, and has only improved in one statistic – percentage of total medals won. However, even that number looks set to decline in 2016, with no Indian athlete having stood on the podium in Rio after 11 days of action.

Bishen Jeswant is a lawyer by profession and currently practices law with a leading Indian firm. He considers himself a cricket babbler who occasionally dabbles in other sports. He writes for Jigsaw Academy – The Online School of Analytics, on the topics of sports analytics and has been a Statistics Sub-editor for ESPNcricinfo.

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