Forget the showdown between the United States and China, the real battle was between the Bahamas and Iceland.

Certainy nobody reported the Olympics that way, but isn’t there something unfair about tallying medals without regard to population? China’s athletes, drawn from a pool of 1.3 billion people, match up against American athletes from a pool about one-quarter as big. Though of course we Americans love to lionize our athletic prowess—measured in total medals won—against nations only a fraction of our size.

I mean, is it really fair to compare the medal count between, say, 300 million Americans and 30 million Canadians? Not hardly. In fact, the Olympics exemplify our tendency to measure the wrong thing.

When you factor in population, places like Germany and Great Britain don’t matter nearly so much as places like Armenia and Mongolia. Or consider Jamaica, which boasts only 2.7 million souls but still managed to bring home 11 medals, including 6 golds. That means Jamaicans netted more than 4 medals for every million residents. None of the big powerhouse countries came even close to that mark. The United States, by contrast, captured only a single medal for every 3 million citizens.

I couldn’t help myself. I crunched the per capita numbers for every country that won an Olympic medal in Beijing. Here are the top 20:

medals per million

Who would have guessed that this is the roster of champions? (As it turns out, my colleague Clark would have. He reminds me that he wrote a post on this very subject four years ago! Sure, the topic isn’t exactly relevant to this blog, it’s just one of those measurement issues that tend to drive us a little bonkers.)

Below the jump, the full standings (and more complete data) for every country that won a medal. Also, some caveats.

  • Okay, okay, there should be a lot of caveats. Among them are these: Olympic qualification rules tend to give small countries a helping hand; and in the heat of a single meet there’s no guarantee that the world’s best athlete will win. Plus, in many sports there are restrictions on how many athletes can advance from each country. So there’s a limitation on how many Chinese divers, American swimmers, or Jamaican sprinters can compete for a medal.

    Plus, there’s something a little weird about per capita success. For instance, even if China had won every single medal in every competition, it would still only have turned in an Ireland-level per capita performance. (Ireland ranked 29th by per capita standards.)

    That said, I bet you’re at least a little curious how the standings played out…

    rank country population (millions) total medals medals per million
    1 Bahamas 0.3 2      6.67
    2 Jamaica 2.7 11      4.07
    3 Iceland 0.3 1      3.33
    4 Slovenia 2 5      2.50
    5 Australia 21 46      2.19
    6 Cuba 11.2 24      2.14
    7 New Zealand 4.2 9      2.14
    8 Norway 4.7 10      2.13
    9 Armenia 3 6      2.00
    10 Belarus 9.7 19      1.96
    11 Estonia 1.3 2      1.54
    12 Mongolia 2.6 4      1.54
    13 Lithuania 3.4 5      1.47
    14 Trin. & Tob. 1.4 2      1.43
    15 Georgia 4.5 6      1.33
    16 Latvia 2.3 3      1.30
    17 Denmark 5.5 7      1.27
    18 Bahrain 0.8 1      1.25
    19 Croatia 4.4 5      1.14
    20 Slovakia 5.4 6      1.11
    21 Hungary 10.1 10      0.99
    22 Netherlands 16.4 16      0.98
    23 Kazakhst
    an
    15.5 13      0.84
    24 Azerbaijan 8.6 7      0.81
    25 Switzerland 7.5 6      0.80
    26 United Kingdom 61 47      0.77
    27 Mauritius 1.3 1      0.77
    28 Finland 5.3 4      0.75
    29 Ireland 4.4 3      0.68
    30 Bulgaria 7.7 5      0.65
    31 France 61.7 40      0.65
    32 South Korea 48.5 31      0.64
    33 Czech Republic 10.3 6      0.58
    34 Ukraine 46.5 27      0.58
    35 Sweden 9.1 5      0.55
    36 Canada 32.9 18      0.55
    37 Russia 141.7 72      0.51
    38 Germany 82.3 41      0.50
    39 Italy 59.3 28      0.47
    40 Spain 45.3 18      0.40
    41 Kyrgyzstan 5.2 2      0.38
    42 Kenya 36.9 14      0.38
    43 Romania 21.6 8      0.37
    44 United States 302.2 110      0.36
    45 Austria 8.3 3      0.36
    46 Greece 11.2 4      0.36
    47 Serbia 9.5 3      0.32
    48 Panama 3.3 1      0.30
    49 Zimbabwe 13.3 4      0.30
    50 Tajikistan 7.1 2      0.28
    51 Poland 38.1 10      0.26
    52 North Korea 23.3 6      0.26
    53 Moldova 4 1      0.25
    54 Uzbekistan 26.5 6      0.23
    55 Singapore 4.6 1      0.22
    56 Dominican Rep. 9.4 2      0.21
    57 Japan 127.7 25      0.20
    58 Belgium 10.6 2      0.19
    59 Portugal 10.7 2      0.19
    60 Taiwan 22.9 4      0.17
    61 Argentina 39.4 6      0.15
    62 Togo 6.6 1      0.15
    63 Israel 7.3 1      0.14
    64 Turkey 74 8      0.11
    65 Tunisia 10.2 1      0.10
    66 Ethiopia 77.1 7      0.09
    67 Brazil 189.3 15      0.08
    68 China 1318 100      0.08
    69 Ecuador 13.5 1      0.07
    70 Morocco 31.7 2      0.06
    71 Thailand 65.7 4      0.06
    72 Chile 16.6 1      0.06
    73 Algeria 34.1 2      0.06
    74 Cameroon 18.1 1      0.06
    75 Colombia 46.2 2      0.04
    76 Malaysia 27.2 1      0.04
    77 Venezuela 27.5 1      0.04
    78 Afghanistan 31.9 1      0.03
    79 Mexico 106.5 3      0.03
    80 Iran 71.2 2      0.03
    81 Nigeria 144.4 4      0.03
    82 Sudan 38.6 1      0.03
    83 Indonesia 231.6 5      0.02
    84 South Africa 47.9 1      0.02
    85 Egypt 73.4 1      0.01
    86 Vietnam 85.1 1      0.01
    87 India 1131.9 3      0.00

     

    All population figures are for mid-2007 from the Population Reference Bureau, here. Medal results are from the official Beijing Oympics standings page.