Counting the Medals: The Olympics Are Still Not Flat

By Charles E. Morrison

(Note: This opinion article originally appeared in
The Honolulu Advertiser on Aug. 24, 2008)

Whatever its shortcomings, the modern Olympics is one of the most successful experiments in strengthening international understanding. Everyone can appreciate the fine performance of an individual athlete or team, regardless of nationality. But the loudest cheers are always for fellow-nationals because of the continuing strength of national identity.

Only two or three nations can ever aspire to see their countries at the top of the Olympics medal count. This time China and the United States were in a category by themselves. China had a commanding 51 to 36 lead in gold medals, and the United States led 110 to 100 in overall medals. Both were victorious on the measures that matter most in their societies. China targeted gold medals, and the United States is one of few nations to traditionally give strong attention to overall medals.

But there are other ways of looking at medal counts that give many other countries something to cheer about. Some smaller countries, such as Jamaica and New Zealand, for example, have far better records than either China or the United States in relationship to their populations. Other nations may be below average even on a per capita basis, but have done better than in the past or have one star athlete or niche sport that places them on the Olympics map.

Australia has 21 million people, a 15th that of the United States. But it has won 40 percent as many medals. South Korea has about 4 percent the population of China, but almost a third as many medals as do the Chinese. On a per capita basis, the Bahamas top the medal count with a medal for every 115,000 citizens. Jamaica's boasted a superstar athlete in Usain Bolt and had a total of 11 medals for 2.7 million people or one medal for every 245,000 people. Sport-minded Australia had one for every 465,000, Cuba one for each 470,000, and South Korea one for every 1.5 million. This compares with the United States at one for every 2.8 million and China at one for every 13 million.

The medal counts illustrate that the world of the modern Olympics is not yet "flat." Some nations seek to tilt the field to their advantage. In a manner reminiscent of the old Soviet and eastern European programs, China's seven-year-old Project 119 used huge subsidies and military-like discipline to ramp up capabilities in Olympic sports where China had been weak, such as track and field events, swimming, rowing, and cycling.

Most other developing countries are largely under-represented at the Olympics, hobbled by fewer athletes, inadequate coaching, poor training facilities, and lack of funds to send large teams to the games. Two developing countries with huge populations –Pakistan, and Bangladesh, each with about 160 million people – have not a single medal between them. Neither does the Philippines, with 90 million people.>India with 1.l billion people had only three medals. Africa as a continent had 39, below Germany's 41. South America had but 26, Central Asia 23, the Middle East 12, and South Asia only 4. In fact, China is the only developing country in the top tier of the medal count.

Economic development, as well as government programs, helps account for the rise of East Asia in Olympic medal counts. Led by China, and with strong South Korea and Japanese performances, East Asia won 176 medals, more than the 163 count for North America, including the Caribbean. At the previous Olympics held in Asia in Seoul in 1988, the U.S. total alone exceeded that of all Asia, and before that East Asia was hardly a force in Olympics competition.

But Europe continues to dominate the medal totals, a fact often obscured by the high individual country totals for China and the United States but obvious to many television viewers. Europe as a whole has led the medal count by far in every modern Olympics except those in the United States in 1904 and 1984, the former before air transport and the latter distorted by the withdrawal of the Soviet bloc. In Beijing, the 27 nation European Union (EU) collectively secured 279 medals, almost as many as China, the United States, and Russia combined. When Russia, Ukraine, Switzerland, Norway and other non-EU European nations are added, European continent had 442 medals. On a per capita basis, Iceland won one medal for its 320,000 people; Slovenia had a medal for every 400,000, Norway one per 480,000, Estonia one per 650,000, and Denmark one for every 785,000.

Clearly the Olympics are not perfect, although many of the individual competitors seem near perfection. But even the countries way far down the medals list may have much to be very proud about. In air rifle shooting, Abhinav Bindra won India's first individual gold medal in 100 years of Olympic competition. Bahraini runner Rashin Ramid brought home his tiny country's first gold medal. Thousands of Mongolians celebrated in the spirit of national unity when 24-year-old Tuvshinbayar Naidan, a son of herders, won Mongolia's first-ever gold in judo. A virtually unknown athlete from Togo, Benjamin Boukpeti, snagged his country's first ever medal, a bronze, in the kayak slalom. We can all take great delight in such individual stories that may mean so much to the countries that are not Olympic powerhouses.

Charles E. Morrison is the President of the East-West Center, an education and research organization on Asia Pacific issues located in Honolulu, Hawaii.


The EAST-WEST CENTER is an education and research organization established by the U.S. Congress in 1960 to strengthen relations and understanding among the peoples and nations of Asia, the Pacific, and the United States. The Center contributes to a peaceful, prosperous and just Asia Pacific community by serving as a vigorous hub for cooperative research, education and dialogue on critical issues of common concern to the Asia Pacific region and the United States. Funding for the Center comes from the U.S. government, with additional support provided by private agencies, individuals, foundations, corporations and the governments of the region.

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