U.S. Olympic Medal Count in Perspective

The U.S. medal count at the 2012 Olympics is uncritically looked at by the media as a competitive race with other countries in terms of gold and total medals won; however, when looked at in terms of gender, population, gross domestic product and overall strength across the many Olympic events, the medal totals look less impressive.

I. U.S. Olympic Medals Won Related to Gender

The U.S. women won 58 of the total 104 medals won by the U.S. Olympic team, or 56 percent of the total. The U.S. women, however, won 29 ot the 46 highly coveted gold medals won by the U.S. team. The women’s share of the gold medals amounts to 63 percent of the total.

In team sports, the women won gold in basketball, soccer, water polo, gymnastics and a silver in volleyball. If two-participant beach volleyball is considered a team sport, the women won gold and silver in that. The men won a gold in basketball but failed to reach the medal round in any other team sport.

The U.S. women’s Olympic performance is a long-term payoff for the enactment of Title IX, which was designed to level the playing field in funding for publicly-supported men’s and women’s sports. It is not the intent of this blog to denigrate the success of the women but to make the point that commentators on the Olympics should have critically examined the relatively greater success of the U.S. women, compared to the U.S. men. 

II. The Relationship of Total and Gold Medals Won Related to a Country’s Population

The medals won by the top 13 countries is as follows:

Country                                     Gold     Silver     Bronze    Total

United States                               46        29           29          104

China                                           38        27            23           88

Russia                                         24        26            32           82

Great Britain                               29        17             19           65

Germany                                    11        19             14           44

Japan                                          7         14             17           38

Australia                                     7          16             12           35

France                                      11          11            12            34

South Korea                             13            8              7            28

Italy                                            8            9             11           28

Canada                                     1            5              12          18

Spain                                        3           10               4           17

Cuba                                        5             3               6            14

The rankings of these medal-winning countries by the ratio of medals won to total population is as follows:

1. Australia; 2. Great Britain; 3. Cuba; 4. Russia; 5. South Korea; 6. Canada; 7. Germany; 8. France; 9. Italy; 10. Spain; 11. United States; 12. Japan; 13. China.

On a medals-to-population ratio basis, Great Britain would have won a little over five times as many medals as the United States if its population had been the same as the United States; also, its gold medal count would have been about 150 instead of 29.

III. Rankings on a Gross Domestic Product Basis (starting with the highest ratio of medals to GDP)

1. Australia; 2. Russia; 3. Great Britain; 4. South Korea; 5. France; 6. Italy; 7. Germany; 8. Canada;  9. Spain; 10. Cuba; 11. United States; 12. Japan; 13. China.

In regard to GDP, the 13 countries rank as follows:

1. United States; 2. China; 3. Japan; 4. Germany; 5. Russia; 6. Great Britain; 7. France; 8. Italy; 9. South Korea; 10. Spain; 11. Canada; 12. Australia; 13. Cuba. Cuba is 65th in GDP and has a relatively small population. It was put in this comparison because of the high number of Olympic medals it won.

The significance of these two rankings is that except for the three countries with the highest GDPs — the U.S, China and Japan — and Cuba, the other nine countries rank near the top of the world in Olympic medals won and GDP. The modern Olympics is often called the “wealth” Olympics, because the richest nations can afford to spend the most in sports facilities and the development of athletes. Based on these GDP rankings, the U.S., China and Japan under-performed and Cuba over-performed. The other nine countries ranged from just under $3 trillion in GDP to just under $1 trillion. 

IV. Olympic Medals Won in Relationship to Olympic Event Categories ( such as swimming, rowing and archery)

The U.S. won 66 medals, or 63.5 percent of its total medals, in swimming, track and field, and gymnastics. Contrasted to China, which won at least five medals in eight different event categories, the U.S. won five or more medals in only the three events listed above. The U.S. won four medals in tennis, cycling, diving, wrestling  and three in rowing. Besides basketball and beach volleyball, the U.S. won two medals in boxing, judo, and taekwondo. It won one medal in fencing, soccer, water polo and volleyball (only two possible in the latter three events). In all the other event categories, the U.S. was shut out in the medal competition. 

V. A Closer Look at U.S. Men’s Track and Field Performance

The U.S. men, who in the past piled up many medals in the running events through 400 meters, did not win a single gold in the strictly running events. They won bronze in the 100 meters, silver in the 1,500 and 10,000 meters and silver in the two relays. In the 200 meters, the third fastest Jamaican runner defeated the fastest U.S. runner.

The U.S. men’s track and field medals tended to be clustered in a few events. Thus, two medals were won in the 110 meter hurdles, two in the triple jump, two in the decathlon and two, I believe, in the broadjump.

Overall then, the U.S. Olympic team’s performance in the 2012 Olympics should be looked at in terms of its large population base, its status as the wealthiest nation in the world, and its relatively weak performance in many of the Olympic event categories. Moreover, the U.S. women won almost two-thirds of the U.S. gold medals and well over half ot the total U.S. medals. This disparity should be considered in any analysis of the U.S. team’s showing in the 2012 Olympics.





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