Nationalism and the Olympics: Meddling with Medal Counts

The Olympic Games is one of the key markers for nationalism in contemporary society. Supposedly, if a country wins a large number of medals, this becomes an international indicator of the country’s overall superiority. The United States typically does very well in the summer Games, leading the way in both gold medals won and total medal count, though China has been a close second in the past two summer Games. Bear in mind, however, the United States has a population of about 310 million, and China 1.34 billion. In this post, David Mayeda breaks down which countries are the true Olympic standouts, considering each country’s population size, and questions the Games as an indicator of nationalism.

“U.S.A. U.S.A. U.S.A.” You could hear the national pride in the chants coming from the American fans. The United States won more medals at this summer’s olympic games than any other country with 104 total medals and 46 gold. The People’s Republic of China earned 88 medals with 38 gold. More than any other symbol of the Olympics, a nation’s medal count is supposed to be a measure of a nation’s global superiority. While it’s true that the Olympics are idealized as a two week international love, peace, and unity extravaganza, this sentiment is at best quaint.

If anything, the Olympics promote a fleeting nationalism within countries – a sense of solidarity, shared values, and cultural pride within a nation’s borders that revolve around athletes’ international success. For instance, all Americans can supposedly take pride in Michael Phelps’s ongoing success across three Olympic Games. It is apparently behind Phelps that all American citizens can rally together, assimilated as one, for about a week.

And in turn, as the USA wins the most gold’s and medals as a whole, Americans in general can assert their collective global superiority. With their Olympic dominance, we can safely assume that the United States must hold greater levels of technological advancement, athletic training innovation, work ethic, physical superiority, mental acumen, and well, just must be the best, period. Right?

Not so fast. Let’s consider some basic statistics first. With a population of roughly 310 million, should we note expect the United States to have a strong Olympic showing to begin with? With 1.34 billion in its citizenry, aren’t the odds in favor of the People’s Republic of China doing well? When we consider different countries’ population size, a very different perspective of success emerges. First, here are the top five countries based on their total medal counts (source):

  1. The United States (46 gold, 29 silver, 29 bronze, 104 total)
  2. People’s Republic of China (38 gold, 27 silver, 23 bronze, 88 total)
  3. Russian Federation (24 gold, 26 silver, 32 bronze, 82 total)
  4. Great Britain (29 gold, 17 silver, 19 bronze, 65 total)
  5. Germany (11 gold, 19 silver, 14 bronze, 44 total)

Now let’s look at the top fifteen countries when we account for population size. We will do this by taking each country’s total Olympic medal count, dividing it by that respective country’s total population, and then taking that figure and multiplying it by 100,000. Thus, the final figure we have (bolded) will still be very small, but it will serve as an indicator of the number of Olympic medallists in each country per 100,000 in the country’s broader population. Here are the top fifteen countries using this method:

  1. Grenada (1 medal for 104,000 in population, or 0.962 per 100,000)
  2. Jamaica (12 medals for 2,730,000 in population, or 0.440 per 100,000)
  3. Trinidad and Tobago (4 medals for 1,344,000 in population, or 0.298 per 100,000)
  4. New Zealand (13 medals for 4,383,000 in population, or 0.297 per 100,000)
  5. Bahamas (1 medal for 346,000 in population, or 0.289 per 100,000)
  6. Slovenia (4 medals for 2,062,700 in population, or 0.194 per 100,000)
  7. Mongolia (5 medals for 2,768,800 in population, or 0.181 per 100,000)
  8. Hungary (17 medals for 10,013,628 in population, or 0.170 per 100,000)
  9. Denmark (9 medals for 5,540,241 in population, or 0.162 per 100,000)
  10. Montenegro (1 medals for 620,000 in population, or 0.161 per 100,000)
  11. Georgia (7 medals for 4,436,000 in population, or 0.158 per 100,000)
  12. Australia (35 medals for 22,421,417 in population, or 0.156 per 100,000)
  13. Lithuania (5 medals for 3,329,227 in population, or 0.150 per 100,000)
  14. Croatia (6 medals for 4,435,056 in population, or 0.135 per 100,000)
  15. Belarus (12 medals for 9,471,900 in population, or 0.127 per 100,000)

When accounting for population size, it is, in order, Grenada, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Aotearoa New Zealand, and the Bahamas who take the top five places. If not for Usain Bolt (Jamaica), who would have thought of any of those countries? Where do the “Olympic powerhouses” stand? The mighty United States falls to 49th place (104 medals for 309,975,000 in population, or 0.034 per 100,000). The People’s Republic of China drops to number 74 on the list (88 medals for 1,339,190,000 in population, or 0.007 per 100,000), and Great Britain moves down to number 23 (65 medals for 62,041,708 in population, or 0.105 per 100,000).

Granted, there are a few issues to consider when using this approach. Jamaica’s prominence is titled by its incredible sprinting core (Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake each won 2 individual medals, and were part of the gold medal 4×100 relay team). Also, a number of athletes who represent certain countries in the Olympics train in other countries. And finally, some single medal counts can include multiple athletes, namely in team sports, but this also applies to relays in individual sports (e.g., track and field and swimming) and team competitions in individual sports (e.g., gymnastics).

These issues aside, when countries use the Olympic Games as a marker of international prominence, they may want to rethink what other countries are accomplishing with the number of citizens they have. “Pound for pound” (or “person for person”), perhaps the USA isn’t so impressive after all.

Photo via Wikipedia.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Do you think our obsession with national medal contradicts the goal of bringing the world together for two weeks of unity? Explain your answer.
  2. In addition to presentation of medal counts, how else have you seen nationalism presented in your country’s coverage of the Olympic Games?
  3. Find a olympic themed commercial online. Does the commercial emphasize world unity, national pride, or both? What symbols, imagery, etc. does it use to communicate this message?
  4. While the U.S. team did well, the female olympians did significantly better. The U.S. women brought home 29 gold medals (compared to the men’s 17) and in total the women earned 58 out of the 104 total medals. What do you think this says about men and women in the United States? How does the inclusion of this fact change the sociological meaning of the U.S. medal count?