Richard Florida is a co-founder and editor at large of CityLab and a senior editor at The Atlantic. He is a university professor in the University of Toronto’s School of Cities and Rotman School of Management, and a distinguished fellow at New York University’s Schack Institute of Real Estate.
It depends on how you count.
Going by the traditional medal count, the United States was the big winner in Rio with a haul of 121 total medals, including 46 golds. Next in line is either China or Great Britain, depending on which you way you measure. China ended up with 70 total medals to Great Britain’s 67, but Great Britain came away with 27 gold medals to China’s 26, making it the second-place finisher in the official Olympic table of medals. Russia is fourth with 56, even though much of its team was suspended. France and Germany tied for fifth with 42. Japan has 41. Australia (29), Italy (28), and Canada (22) complete the top ten.
But simply adding up total medals can be misleading. Some nations are much bigger and richer than others and field bigger teams that compete for more medals. In terms of population, for example, the U.S. is nearly four times bigger than Germany, almost 10 times the size of Canada, and more than 50 times larger than Denmark. And of course China is four times larger than the U.S.
So, which countries dominated Rio when we control for their population, economic output and size of their Olympic team?
With the help of my colleagues Charlotta Mellander and Patrick Adler, we ranked each nation’s overall medal performance by their population, economic output (GDP) based on figures from the World Bank’s World Development Indicators, and the number of members in their Olympic delegations.
When you look at Olympic results by these metrics, the list changes considerably.
The chart above takes population size into account, showing the number of medals per 10 million people. Bigger countries have more people and a much bigger potential pool of athletes. The USA falls to 44th place (with 3.8 medals). Russia is now 43rd (3.9), and Japan 46th (3.3). Great Britain is higher at 20th (10.3) and Canada 32nd (6.1). China falls all the way down to 76th (0.5 medals).
Now tiny Grenada takes the top spot. Its one medal is equivalent to 93.6 medals per 10 million people. The Bahamas is second with 51.5, followed by Jamaica with 40.3, New Zealand with 39.2, Denmark with 26.4, and Croatia with 23.7. (In some cases, these numbers are higher than the countries' actual medal counts because their populations are lower than 10 million.)
This next chart controls for the wealth of nations, charting the number of medals per $100 billion dollars of GDP. Richer countries mean that athletes grow up in more affluent families who can support their development and also have greater resources to invest in everything from training facilities to local and national sports programs.
Now, the United States does even worse at 69th (with 0.67), while China is 70th (0.64). Russia is slightly higher, ranking 34th (4.2). Great Britain is 42nd (2.4), and Canada is 53rd (1.4).
Again, Grenada tops the list: Its one medal translates to more than 100 medals (102.2 per $100 billion GDP). Jamaica is next with 78.5, followed by Georgia (50.1), and Armenia (37.9).
We can also control for the efficiency of national Olympic teams—counting medals per Olympic team member. Bigger nations have bigger teams competing in more sports. Controlling for the number of medals per team member enables us to see how efficient teams of various sizes are in bringing home medals. As I mentioned in my post last week, this is perhaps the most useful metric as it shows the countries which are best at generating medals per member of their Olympic teams.
Now the USA and bigger nations do better. The U.S. rises to third with 2.14* medals per 10 Olympic team members. Russia is fifth (1.98), Great Britain is eighth (1.8), and China is tenth (1.74). Japan is 22nd (1.2), and Canada is 45th (0.69). All told, Azerbaijan takes the top spot with 3.2 medals per ten Olympians, North Korea is second with 2.25, while Jamaica finishes sixth with 1.86.
*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story stated that North Korea was in third place when controlling for medals per Olympic team member. The country came in second.