Did Russia Really Win the Sochi Medal Count?

How small countries like Belarus, Norway, and Slovenia dominated the Winter Olympics host.
Belarusian gold medalist Darya Domracheva (center), Czech silver medalist Gabriela Soukalova (right), and Norwegian bronze medalist Tiril Eckhoff (left) celebrate after the women's biathlon in Sochi. (Reuters/Shamil Zhumatov)

Counting by total medals, the Sochi Winter Olympics have been a big win for the host country, Russia, whose 33 medals top the overall tally. The United States is second with 28, Norway is third with 26, Canada is fourth with 25, and the Netherlands is fifth with 24.

Created with Datawrapper

But there are several alternative ways to count medals. The economist Jared Bernstein, for instance, proposes a weighting scheme where gold medals count for 3, silver for 2, and bronze for 1.

Russia’s haul is even bigger by this accounting, adding up to 70 weighted medals. Canada is second with 55, Norway and the United States tied for third with 53, and the Netherlands next with 47.

Created with Datawrapper

But total medal counts do not reflect population size or the financial resources countries have at their disposal, as I wrote last week. In terms of population, for example, the U.S., is nearly four times bigger than Germany, almost 10 times the size of Canada, and more than 60 times larger than Norway. Which countries dominated in Sochi relative to their size and wealth?

My colleague Charlotta Mellander at the Martin Prosperity Institute ranked final medal performance by the size of each country's population and by its economic output, or GDP.

When you look at Olympic results by these metrics, the list changes considerably.

Created with Datawrapper

The chart above shows total medals per 10 million people. Norway tops the list with more than 50 medals, followed by Slovenia with nearly 40, Austria and Latvia with around 20, and Sweden with roughly 15 (these numbers are higher than the countries' actual medal counts because their populations are lower than 10 million). Russia falls to 14th place and the United States is out of the top 20, in 21st place.

Created with Datawrapper

The chart above shows medals per $100 billion of GDP. Now tiny Slovenia tops the list with 17.7 medals followed by Latvia with 14.1, Belarus with 9.5, Norway with 5.2, and Austria with 4.3. Russia drops to 12th place. And the United States again doesn't crack the top 20.

Created with Datawrapper

The blogger Squarely Rooted responded to my original post by proposing an additional and very useful metric to account for the efficiency of national Olympic teams—counting medals per Olympic team member. By this metric, the Netherlands tops the list, followed by Belarus and Norway. Now Russia jumps to fourth place. The U.S. takes tenth.

My conclusion last week continues to hold.

The top performers, after adjusting for the size of each country's population and economy, turn out to be smaller countries in colder climates. These countries tend to specialize in winter sports, and their Olympic programs lack the competition from big-time professional sports leagues that siphon off top athletic talent.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Richard Florida is Co-founder and Editor at Large of CityLab.com and Senior Editor at The Atlantic. He is director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto and Global Research Professor at NYU. More

Florida is author of The Rise of the Creative ClassWho's Your City?, and The Great Reset. He's also the founder of the Creative Class Group, and a list of his current clients can be found here
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

What's the Number One Thing We Could Do to Improve City Life?

A group of journalists, professors, and non-profit leaders predict the future of livable, walkable cities

Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus


Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.


What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.


Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.


Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.


Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.


The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air



More in Global

From This Author

Just In