The List July/August 2004

Olympic Elite

The world's most athletic nations

As athletes vie for Olympic glory in Athens, patriotic couch potatoes everywhere will be cheering on their countrymen. But which is the world's most athletic nation? A handful of large countries have traditionally dominated the medal count: in the 1996 and 2000 summer games the United States (198 medals) and Russia (150) were the biggest winners, followed by Germany (122), China (109), and Australia (99). But medal counts don't truly measure athleticism; simple math says that a highly populous country like the United States is more likely than a tiny country—say, Liechtenstein—to produce a champion sprinter. If all nations were equally athletic, each would win a share of medals proportional to its share of world population. One way to measure a country's athleticism, then, is to rank it by how much it exceeds (or falls short of) its "expected share" of medals.

By this standard the United States has still performed well, winning two and a half times as many medals as the size of its population would lead one to expect. But dozens of other nations have done better. Here are the ten countries (with at least five medals) that have most impressively exceeded their expected share of medals over the past two Summer Olympics.

1. Australia 18.2 times its expected share: 99 medals. Rough stereotypes notwithstanding, Australians have frequently won medals in what might be thought of as preppy sports: rowing, equestrian events, and field hockey. They've also dominated many swimming events.

2. Jamaica 17.05 times: 13 medals. Jamaicans were among the world's fastest sprinters in 1996 and 2000. Twelve of their thirteen medals were won in sprints.

3. Cuba 16.98 times: 54 medals. Cuba's success may support the old theory of a "Communist premium": the determination of Communist countries to industrialize the production of Olympic medal winners. Or it may simply be that Cubans are great boxers and baseball players.

4. Norway 13.2 times: 17 medals. Norway's profile may be highest in women's soccer, but almost half its summer medals have been won in sailing, rowing, and kayaking.

5. Hungary 13.1 times: 38 medals. Hungarians are among the world's best canoers and kayakers.

6. Bulgaria 12.2 times: 28 medals. If you meet a Bulgarian in a dark alley at 3:00 A.M., it's probably best not to start a fight. Men's weightlifting and wrestling have produced several medals; so have pistol events for both sexes.

7. Belarus 10.7 times: 32 medals. While keeping one eye out for Bulgarians, keep the other out for Belarusians. They excel in shooting, throwing, and wrestling.

8. The Netherlands 9.7 times: 44 medals. Athletic success and permissive attitudes toward mind-altering substances can coexist. The Dutch have excelled in equestrian events, swimming, cycling, and rowing.

9. New Zealand 9.6 times: 10 medals. The Kiwis won three of their ten medals in sailing events. The remainder came in equestrian events, rowing, and swimming.

10. Denmark 7.9 times: 12 medals. The Danes have won medals in handball, badminton, rowing, and sailing.

(Bonus ranking: India is by far the least athletic of the large nations, winning less than one percent of its expected share, or just two medals—both bronze.)

Presented by

Nathan Littlefield is an Atlantic staff researcher.

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