Each time the Olympic and Paralympic Games come around, a small minority of nations tend to do well. On average, only 25% of competing nations at the Olympics will win a gold medal – and they’re pretty much the same ones year in, year out.
Intrigued, we dug into data spanning back to 1948 – derived from our colleagues at Gracenote Sport – to unravel how different countries approach sport, and how that affects their chances of Olympic success.
Looking back over the last 20 years, we found that the top 20 nations have consistently won more than 70% of the medals at each games. Despite the fact that some progress has been made over the last five games, the figure below demonstrates that this trend has persisted throughout modern Olympic history.
It follows that if some nations consistently perform very well, others repeatedly do not. One group which appears to perform relatively poorly is Muslim nations – which we define as those nations where around 50% of the population is Muslim. We found 53 nations that meet this definition, which collectively account for 18% of the world’s population.
Econometric models have consistently shown that bigger populations and greater wealth are closely linked with medal success. But based on these trends, Muslim nations perform well below what we might expect. For instance, Muslim nations only won 61 (6.3%) of the medals awarded at London 2012. By comparison, the top-ranked nation at the games (the US) racked up 104 (10.8%) of the medals, with only 4.5% of the world’s population.
There are several reasons which could explain this relatively poor performance. For one thing, the Olympics largely features typically European sports, such as swimming, rowing and cycling. All of these require significant facilities and investment to develop medal winners. This doesn’t play to the strengths of many Muslim nations, which tend to be more successful in combat sports and weightlifting – events where there are comparatively fewer medals up for grabs.
The gender balance
All things being equal, you would expect nations to win medals in proportion to the medals available for each gender (47% women, 53% men). The fact that women won just 15 (25%) of the Muslim nations’ 61 medals at London 2012 indicates that Muslim nations under-perform in women’s events particularly.
When we considered the top ten nations in London 2012, we noticed that Korea and Italy also under-performed in women’s events, and over-relied on men for their overall success. By contrast, in recent years China has actively targeted success in women’s events. This has proved to be a highly successful strategy: 57% of the nation’s medals in 2012 were won by women, which led to second place in the medal table.
Other nations with strong contributions made by women include the US – where college sport provides a fruitful pathway to develop young talent – and Australia, which has targeted elite sport success for men and women since the 1980s, when it set up the Australian Institute of Sport. Meanwhile, with their successful equestrian programmes, Germany and Great Britain won nearly 10% of their medals in mixed or open events at London 2012.
Positive approaches to women’s sport will only become more significant, as the International Olympic Committee works towards its goal to achieve gender equity in the 2020s.
As you might expect, there is a strong correlation between the nations which dominate the Olympics, and those which succeed at the Paralympics. But a few nations buck the trend: some perform better in the Paralympics than the Olympics, and others significantly worse.
To illustrate this point, the figure below shows the index scores of Paralympic success compared with Olympic success for London 2012. An index score simply enables us to make a like for like comparison between the two events. For example, the US won 6% of medals in the Paralympic Games and 12% in the Olympic Games. So, the US has an index score of 50 ([6% / 12%] x 100 = 50), which means that it achieved only half the success in the Paralympic Games, relative to the Olympic Games.
The higher the index, the greater the nation’s Paralympic success, relative to its performance in the Olympics. We did this calculation for all nations which won at least 15 Paralympic medals.
North African nations Algeria and Tunisia – which also happen to be Muslim nations – excelled at the Paralympics relative to the Olympics. Of the traditional Olympic powers, better performances were also seen by Ukraine, Australia, China, Canada and Spain – three of which have been recent hosts (Sydney in 2000, Beijing in 2008 and Barcelona in 1992).
By contrast, the US and Japan performed relatively poorly at the Paralympics, suggesting that elite disabled athletes may not be receiving the levels of support which are provided to elite able-bodied athletes.
Fuller explanations for these variations are complex, but social attitudes towards disability must play a part. For instance, British parliamentarian and multi-Paralympic medallist Tanni Grey-Thompson cited the role of television coverage as a key factor in the US’s modest Paralympic performance.
Bizarrely, in a country where you have Title IX about women’s entitlement to sport at university and they have had scholarship programmes for disabled athletes for 40 years … the public do not get to see it [on television].
As the Olympics and Paralympics play out in Rio throughout August and September, we’ll probably see the same old suspects dominating the medal tables. But dig beneath the surface, and you’ll find that the results can tell us a thing or two about each nation’s sporting priorities: especially when it comes to the success of their elite women and disabled athletes.