And the Winners are … Norway and Slovenia: Sochi Medals, Per Capita

Sochi per capita medals mapI must admit to being off-put by the nationalism that is prevalent at all Olympic games, as I would rather see athletes competing against each other, not countries locked in competition. But regardless of my personal feelings, the Olympics form a showcase for national pride, and countries do compete with each other at a variety of levels. Reports on the medal count at the Sochi Winter Olympics put Russia in first place, with 33 total medals, and the United States in second place, with 28. Such a count is slightly misleading, however, as the gap between the two countries was much more substantial if one weighs the kinds of medals received. If, for example, one were to give three points for a gold medal, two for a silver, and one for a bronze, Russia would handily beat the United States, with a score of 70 against 53. The same system, moreover, would place Norway in a tie with the US, and would leave Canada just one point behind.

A more serious issue, however, is whether it is fair to compare Norway, with a population just over five million, with the United States, which has well over 300 million inhabitants, much less with China, with over 1.3 billion. I have therefore taken the “medal index” described above and divided each county’s count by its population (in millions). The outcome is apparent on the map above. As one can see, Norway, by this measurement, was the overwhelming winner, with more than 10 “medal points” per million inhabitants, greatly exceeding the score of Russia (0.49) and especially the United States (0.167). The only country that comes close to Norway is Slovenia, with a score of 7.0. Austria comes next, with 3.8, and Switzerland follows with 3.2.

The four leading countries share a number of features. All are prosperous by global standards, although Slovenia lags well behind the others, and all have substantial mountains with major ski resorts. Although few people think of Slovenia as an Alpine country, the Julian Alps extend well into its small territory, and according to one website Slovenia boasts “several dozen fully maintained ski centres.” Prosperous northern countries without mountains are less competitive. Denmark’s only winter Olympic medal (silver) was won by its women’s curling team in Nagano Japan at the 1998 Winter Games, and Belgium has taken home only one medal since 1952. The major exception here is the Netherlands, but it is notable that all of its medals at Sochi were in speed skating (including “short track speed skating”), a sport that it dominated at the 2014 games. Other non-mountainous countries that did well in the per capita medal count at Sochi include Finland, Latvia, and Belarus.

USA Today has an interesting ranking of countries by number of participating athletes per medal. Here the Netherlands is the clear leader, with figure of 1.7, whereas the figure for the last-placed Slovakia is 62. But of course many competing countries did more poorly than Slovakia, as they won no medals at all. The same site has a number of other intriguing bits of information, such as the fact that the United States came in first place in only one sport: snowboarding.

Finally, for an intriguing series of cartograms on historical Olympics performance, see this site.

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