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Who Won the Olympics?

Posted by: Calin Hertioga on September 05, 2012


Photo by Interbrand's Alex Leopold

The Paralympics are underway, as is the medal count. As it stood end of Day 6, China had accumulated the most medals, followed, in order, by Great Britain, Russia, Australia, Ukraine, USA, Germany, France, Spain and Brazil. China had won 53 gold medals, 30 more than Great Britain and 39 more than the USA. But as Channel 4's Superhumans campaign highlights, every Paralympian is a superhuman athlete. Reflecting on London 2012's medal count, one might ask, "Did one nation emerge the winner?"

Tribes and then nations have always been competing for resources, economically and politically, since the beginning of human history. In more recent times, a new type of competition is emerging: the nation brands competition.

While quantifying and ranking nation brands is a (daunting) topic becoming hot only in the last few years, the first internationally established "measurement standard" for nation brands has been around for more than 100 years - the Olympic Games medals ranking.

Economic and then political competition among nations has largely followed the principle "more is better" - and this is the way the medal ranking is set up as well: Who wins the most medals? The IOC has introduced a "qualitative" element, ranking countries by gold medals above anything else. [in this exercise we'll use the "New York Times weighting principle"to get a country score of "bronze equivalents": 1 point for bronze, 2 (double) for silver, 4 (double) for gold].

The USA is leading all "quantitative" rankings of the London 2012 Olympics, by total medals (104), gold medals (46) and total points (271=46x4+29x2+29x1). But did the United States really "win" the Olympics?

From a "quantitative" perspective, yes – and here's how the top 10 ranking by "bronze equivalents" looks like:

Medal Count

But have these countries really "won" the Olympics in terms of "quality" as well? Have they made the most effective use of their resources?

Each country starts from a different "potential" in terms of two key resources needed for medal performance: people and money. Let's see how well countries have used their initial starting potential for winning medals.

Let's therefore compare the share of medals (bronze equivalent points) won with the share of world population and world GDP. (sources: United Nations and CIA Factbook, via Wikipedia)


The ~300 Million US citizens represent around 4% of the world population – less than the 12% share of bronze equivalents, which means they have achieved 268% of their potential (12%/4%=268%) – well done!

But have others done better? The top 10 ranking of (over)achieving population looks like this:


Grenada, a tiny island in the Caribbean, grabbed the first spot due to its very small population (110,000 inhabitants) coupled with the one gold medal won by the sprinter Kirani James – even this medal, however, way exceeding its theoretical potential.

Even if we consider Grenada and Bahamas as outliers (although we know from Malcolm Gladwell that there are no outliers), it is obvious that countries with a small population can more easily surpass their potential. Of these, the more deserving ones should be the ones who do so benefiting from less financial power than others – which brings us to the next criterion.


The USA accounts for 20% of the world's GDP – with only 12% of medal points share, they have underachieved their potential. The top 10 from this perspective looks as follows:

This ranking gives an advantage to countries with a very low GDP among the ones with a good medal exploit – Kenya, North Korea, Cuba.

And now to the finale: Averaging the population and the GDP scores out gives us the combined ranking of the most effective nations – most over-achieving the combination of their population and financial potential:


Beyond Grenada and Bahamas, Jamaica and New Zealand are the stars: they have won 12 respectively 13 medals, for a population of 2 respectively 4 Million inhabitants.

Their success stories came on different paths: Jamaica obtained all medals in one single sport (athletics), while New Zealand medalists spread over 7 disciplines (athletics, cycling bmx, canoe sprint, cycling track, equestrian, rowing and sailing).

If we look down the list, we see similar patterns – while Georgia and Mongolia got their medals in a small number of disciplines they excel at (wrestling and judo), Hungary won their impressive 17 medals in 8 disciplines (athletics, canoe sprint, fencing, gymnastics, judo, modern pentathlon, swimming, wrestling).

So – who won the Olympic Games? The USA? Grenada? Jamaica? New Zealand?

It's the Olympics. Everybody won. Medals aren't the only things that count.

Calin Hertioga is a Senior Consultant at Interbrand Zurich.

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