The U.S. Olympic Medal Count Isn't as Impressive as it Looks

When medals are measured against wealth and size, several other nations outperform the United States.

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Athletes compete during the men's 5000m Round 1 Heats.

It's been a stirring Summer Games for American athletes. Swimmer Michael Phelps became the most decorated Olympic athlete ever. The women's soccer team avenged a 2011 World Cup loss to Japan by beating the same team for the Olympic gold. Overall, the United States is poised to win nearly 100 medals and top the national medal count, thanks to strong performances in swimming, gymnastics, track and field and many other sports.

Coming in first is no surprise for the United States, since it's a large and wealthy country with a long standing dedication to sport. Training athletes to perform at the top of their fields is expensive, so it's logical that the wealthiest countries ought to do best. And the larger your population, the greater the odds that world-class athletes will emerge. When you gauge the medal count relative to wealth and population, however, the United States only turns in a middling performance.

[Photos: The Chi of Olympic Table Tennis]

I used data from the World Bank on population and GDP to see how the top 10 countries in the medal count stack up. If you measure the number of medals won per one million inhabitants, here's how the top nations compare:

1. Australia

2. United Kingdom

3. South Korea

4. Germany

5. France

6. Russia

7. Italy

8. United States

9. Japan

10. China.

[Cheer the Olympians—but tax them, too.]

That's interesting, because the Australian media has been bashing its Olympic squad for a string of disappointments. But for its relatively small population, Australia has done well.

Here's how the top 10 nations rank in terms of the number of medals per GDP, a proxy for national wealth:

1. Russia

2. United Kingdom

3. South Korea

4. Australia

5. China

6. Germany

7. France

8. Italy

9. United States

10. Japan

So relative to its resources, the U.S. medal count isn't all that impressive. Still, that shouldn't detract from the accomplishments of the U.S. Olympic Team. In fact, if the United States were any more dominant, it might make the Games seem more elitist and less interesting.

Another way to look at these rankings is to credit the nations that outperformed, given their relatively small size or limited wealth. Russia has gotten little attention on U.S. telecasts, for instance, yet it tops the other big nations in terms of medals relative to GDP. Chinese officials must be disappointed with their athletes' showing, since they publicly pledged that China would win the most medals. But China still did better than its U.S. rival on the medals-per-GDP scale.

A spot check of smaller nations reveals that Cuba (nine medals), Kenya (seven), Azerbaijan (six) and even North Korea (five) all outrank the big countries in terms of medals relative to their GDP. And Hungary, with a population of just 10 million, has won 15 medals, placing it far above Australia with the highest proportion of medalists per 1 million inhabitants. Maybe there should be a medal for that. Or at least some bragging rights.

Rick Newman is the author of Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.