Data | Does economy determine a country's performance at Olympics?

Glittering show: Neeraj’s gold is the first medal by an Indian athlete at the Olympics.  

The size of the economy is strongly linked to a country's performance at the Olympics. In general, the bigger the size of a country's economy, the more the medals, with very few exceptions such as Kenya, Ethiopia and Ukraine. At the Tokyo Olympics, the top 10 countries in the medals tally won 54% of all the medals. Eight of them are high-income countries. On the other hand, factors such as the size of the population and the Human Development Index have little bearing on a nation's performance at the Olympics.

The top three countries in terms of the GDP size in 2020 - the U.S., China and Japan - were the top three countries in the Tokyo medal tally in that order.

Between 1992 and 2021, 65% each of high-income and upper-middle-income countries, 27% of lower-middle-income countries and 37% of low-income countries won at least one Olympic medal.

With 21 medals between 1992 and 2021, India stands seventh among the 15 lower-middle-income countries and 55th among the 93 countries which have won at least one medal at the Olympics.

Medals and population

The chart plots the total number of medals won by a country at the Tokyo Olympics against the number of medals won per crore population. The trendline suggests that there is no correlation between the population size and medals won by a country. For instance, the U.S., which is among the most populous nations, won the highest number of medals in Tokyo but stands 60th if medals won per crore people is considered. On the other hand, a sparsely inhabited region like San Marino came out on top despite winning only three medals.

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Economy size

While there is little impact of the population size on the medal tally, the size of the economy seems to have a positive correlation to the number of podium finishes. That is, the bigger the economy, the more the medals. The chart plots the total number of medals won by a country in Tokyo against its GDP in 2020. Here, the trendline suggests a strong positive correlation between the two variables.

Income group

The chart plots the number of medals won by countries — classified according to their income levels — in the Olympic Games between 1992 and 2021. High-income countries, such as the U.S., Australia and Great Britain won more medals than countries with other income levels. Among upper-middle-income nations, China and Russia stand out. Notably, Ukraine and Kenya, two lower-middle-income countries, and Ethiopia, a low-income nation, have punched above their weight by winning a significantly higher number of medals than others in their income category. However, even these three nations pale in comparison to the medal tallies of high-income and upper-middle-income countries.

Medals and HDI

Another indicator to determine Olympic performance can be a country's improvement in the Human Development Index (HDI). The chart plots the difference between the average medals won by a country between 1992-2004 and 2008-2021 against the % change in HDI in this period. Here, the trendline again suggests that there is little correlation between these two indicators.

Source: IOC, Our World in Data, World Bank, UN

Also read: From an athletics gold to fencing debut: India’s many firsts at the Tokyo Olympics


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Printable version | Dec 5, 2021 11:17:55 PM |

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