Assessing the diversification of medal winners by nationality at the Olympic Games


Rumors, innuendo, gossip and even fear; that’s what’s governing the build-up to the Summer Games of the XXX Olympiad as the world’s media descends on London and scrambles to file ‘stories’ pre-event.

Suddenly, the dubious worthiness of Rupert Grint – aka Harry Potter’s Ron Weasley – as near-final-leg torchbearer was big news as the twin beacons (the Olympic flame and Grint’s hair) made their way through northwest London. The release of a Typhoon fighter jet by Britain’s Ministry of Defence made World-War-II-esc headlines – the jet was sent to intercept a commercial aircraft that had unknowingly strayed into restricted airspace (specifically established for the duration of the London Olympics). The outcome? “Communications were quickly restored and no further action was required,” reported the ministry. Wow – that’s hot stuff! And, the pre-Games figures of athletes – most notably four-time Olympic swim champ Leisel Jones – have been savaged by hoards of blathering, flabby, middle-aged reporters.

At Yellowfin, we’re not buying into the media’s self-generated and self-serving pre-Games hysteria.

No; we’re ignoring the shallow banter by utilizing Business Intelligence and data visualization to delve a little deeper. In yesterday’s blog entitled Dissecting female participation at the Olympic Games with infographics & data visualization (the first of our Olympic data blog series), we analyzed the participation of female athletes at the Olympics over time. We concluded that the Games have been continually diversifying – in terms of gender participation – since their inception in 1896, with the trend towards gender equality rapidly accelerating over the past two to three decades. But what about diversification by nationality? We know that socio-economically powerful countries, such as the United States, have traditionally fielded strong teams and dominated medal tallies. So is this trend accelerating? Or is Olympic glory beginning to spread amongst the globes’ lesser lights too?

Number of Olympic medal winning countries over time

Despite some early fluctuation, that saw the number of medal winning countries drop from 19 at the inaugural Games at Athens in 1896 to just 10 at the 1904 World’s Fair Games in St. Louis, it’s immediately evident that medals are being won by an increasingly varied number of nations.

Except for the notable dip between the 1972 (48 nations won medals), 1976 (41 nations won medals) and 1980 (36 nations won medals) Olympics. So what accounted for this against-the-trend period? Did the strong teams get stronger? Did the weak simply get weaker? The answer: both the 1976 and 1980 Olympics were marred by significant boycotts.

Twenty-eight countries shunned the ’76 Games following the International Olympic Committee’s refusal to ban New Zealand as a consequence of the New Zealand rugby teams’ tour of South Africa earlier that year. At the time South Africa was held in international disregard, and had been banned from Olympic competition since 1964, due to its widely unpopular apartheid policies.

A staggering 65 countries boycotted the 1980 Summer Olympics, which were hosted by the Soviet Union, in support of the United States’ decision not to partake in the Games of the XXII Olympiad due to Cold War tensions.

Since then, the number of nations whose Olympians have secured medals has unwaveringly and strongly proliferated. In 1980, the overall medal pool was spread between just 36 countries. A record 85 nations took home at least one piece of Gold, Silver or Bronze memorabilia from Beijing in 2008.

But while the total number of medals are being shared more evenly, has the trend been reflected within medal types? Or have a handful of countries been going for (and achieving) Gold, with only the minor spoils being more widely dispersed?

Number of Olympic medal winning countries by medal type over time

The spread of Gold, Silver and Bronze medals has remained roughly proportional to each other within the overarching upward trend towards a greater number of medal winning countries. That is – as a general rule – Gold medals are shared between the fewest numbers of countries; Silver second (ironic), with Bronze medals almost always shared amongst the largest array of recipient nations.

These results suggest that, although more countries are increasingly able to elevate their sportspersons to the Olympic dais, the competitors of less economically able nations will continue to struggle to remove the more traditional power-nations from the podium’s highest step.

In absolute terms – adding the number of nations to have won Gold, Silver and Bronze medals from each of the 26 previous Olympic Games together – the exclusivity (by country) of Gold medal winners is perhaps more obvious: Gold (716), Silver (817), Bronze (929).

Where to next?

Stay tuned for our continuing series of Olympic data blogs, appearing daily until London’s Closing Ceremony (12 August).


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