Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
It’s not the U.S.
With the opening weekend of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games complete, China and the U.S. are tied in the overall medal count at eight medals each. Japan and Italy stand right behind them, with seven per country. But none of these nations cracks into the Top 5 by another count—arguably, the count that the Olympics should be using.
China, Japan, Italy, and the U.S. are four of the wealthiest countries competing in Rio. These nations boast large populations and high GDP indicators. These nations simply have more going for them than many of their competitors in the hunt for Olympic glory.
By accounting for these factors—population size and GDP—it’s possible to see the medal count through a different lens. Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky may rule the world right now, but in terms of medals per capita and medals per gross domestic product, the U.S. only barely breaks into the Top 20 at Rio.
Thanks to the silver medal won by trap shooter Natalie Rooney, New Zealand rules the world in medals per capita. With one Olympic medal per 4.6 million people, the Kiwis just edge out No. 2, Australia, whose five medals give the country a per capita account of 4.8 million people per medal. The U.S.’s eight medals (and enormous population) gives it a per-capita medal count of one ring per 40 million people—good enough for 20th place, if not great for my pride.
Better us than China, with one medal per every 171 million people.
This proportionate approach to the medal count comes courtesy of Craig Nevill-Manning, a New Zealand-born engineer and chief technology officer* for Google’s Sidewalk Labs. He is the proprietor of Medals Per Capita, a site that puts Olympic glory in context using data that are easily obtained.
“My bias? I'm originally from New Zealand, which has consistently been in the top half-dozen or so countries for total medals and gold medals per capita, and in 1984 won the most golds per capita,” Nevill-Manning writes on the site. (He did not immediately return a request for comment.)
By one medal count, North Korea is as glorious as the nation keeps insisting to the world. Nevill-Manning’s count places the Hermit Kingdom at the top of the list of Olympic medals per GDP (using figures provided by the World Bank). North Korea’s GDP is so low (at $22 billion) that its single medal so far (a silver from weight-lifter Om Yun-Chol) is enough to beat out nations with relatively low GDPs, but multiple medals (Uzbekistan, Hungary, and Kazakhstan).
There’s still most of the month to go in the Rio 2016 Olympics, so these numbers are bound to move. Expect the Caribbean states to swoop in soon. In the London 2012 Olympics, Grenada and Jamaica led most every adjusted category, including weighted medals per capita (which borrows the system devised by The New York Times that allots four points for gold, two points for silver, and one point for bronze). And Jamaica and the Bahamas cleaned up at the Beijing 2008 Olympics, too.
Despite winning 46 gold medals in the London 2012 Olympics, the U.S. mustered only 28th place in the medal-per-capita count. U.S.A.? U.S.A.?
*CORRECTION: Craig Nevill-Manning is chief technology officer for Google’s Sidewalk Labs.