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Trends in the Olympic Medals Index among developed and emerging countries – A reality check

Christoph Szubski *
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This brief SPORTIFY CITIES report examines the evolution of elite sports success of developed and emerging countries over the course of a 20-year period. To compare sporting performances at Summer Olympic Games across these countries, a novel Olympic Medals Index (OMI) has been created. The assessment outcomes demonstrate that the OMI among emerging countries has recently started to decline. By contrast, developed countries that have a longstanding sporting tradition appear to have been able to strengthen their grip on the Olympic medal rankings over the past decade. This report briefly discusses the implications of these original results while offering reasonable predictions of future OMI trends.

In the modern era of sports many countries aspire to achieve international recognition through global dominance in elite sports. The growing attendance of countries and participants at the Summer Olympic Games, in particular, implies that the political and socio-cultural significance of this large-scale sporting event has increased over the past decades, resulting in a fierce competition for medals between nations. Although the International Olympic Committee (IOC) does not officially recognize Olympic medal rankings, they typically serve as valid indicators for sporting prowess of a country. And given the fact that they provide evidence-based legitimacy for potential national Olympic sports investments, Olympic medal rankings will remain a relevant performance evaluation tool for media broadcasters as well as sports governing bodies.

The incentives for countries to invest into Olympic medals are manifold, ranging from political and socio-economic objectives to national self-image perception and soft power influence. Until the 1970s the wealthier sporting nations located in North America and Europe have mostly monopolised the Olympic medals tallies, with 89% (!) of all medals at the 1976 Summer Olympic in Montreal being won by North American and European countries. Over the past four decades, however, a more levelled playing field appears to have emerged in the elite sports, which can largely be attributed to two factors: improved socio-economic circumstances in many countries across the globe and financial and infrastructural support offered by the IOC to predominantly poorer countries. In this regard, China’s emergence as a top-sporting nation is probably the most remarkable example of a surge in sporting prowess of a less developed country. (China achieved its best-ever Olympic sporting performance at the 2008 Beijing Olympics by winning 100 medals.)


At the 2008 Beijing Olympics China, a key emerging country, won its highest ever number of medals.

Yet it is uncertain whether the less developed, poorer countries have already succeeded in breaking the Olympic sports dominance of developed countries. To gain more insights into the topic, this brief report comprises an analysis with the aim of assessing the evolution of Olympic medals among developed and less developed countries over the past two decades.

For this analysis countries are categorised into developed countries and emerging countries – as classified by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The two groups of countries consist of the 15 best-performing developed countries* and the 15 best-performing emerging countries* at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. The Olympic sporting performance of these countries is defined as the total medals achieved at Summer Olympic Games (Winter Olympic Games are not considered in this analysis because of the evident participation limitations of numerous geographically-disadvantaged countries). Due to the lack of global standards for medal valuation, a novel Olympic Medals Index (OMI) has been created for this brief report. All medals are weighted according to their estimated actual values: bronze medals and silver medals are weighted as one-third and two-thirds of the gold medals, respectively.

Chart 1 displays a gradual OMI-convergence between the developed and emerging countries until the 2004 Olympics and a trend towards OMI-divergence thereafter. This slowly evolving divergence in medals indices between both groups during the post-2004 Olympics period could be an indicator that the developed countries have recently been consolidating their position as an Olympic sporting power block, achieving 52% of all weighted medals at the recent Rio 2016 Olympics (USA and Great Britain were the key contributors). In contrast, the group of emerging countries reached an OMI of merely 25% at the latest Olympic Games – its lowest level in the past two decades. This sudden regression in medals is largely due to the weakening performance of China and Russia, as demonstrated in Chart 2. After reaching the 18%-mark at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, their combined OMI has recently dropped by almost 30% of its peak value.


Chart 1.  The Olympic Medals Index (OMI) reflects the share of all weighted medals accumulated by the selected developed and emerging countries at Summer Olympic Games between 1996 and 2016.


Chart 2.  Olympic Medals Indices of China and Russia – the best-performing emerging countries.

Furthermore, the continuous index stagnation of less developed countries located in Latin-America and Africa (none of the Latin-American and African countries is classified as a developed country) below the 10%-mark (see Chart 3) confirms the observation that the gap in Olympic sports performance between developed and less developed countries has been gradually widening. Given the long-term financial and logistic support for Olympic sports development provided by the IOC and other international sports organizations to these less developed and under-resourced countries, the consistently low share of all weighted medals won by African nations (with the highest rate of 4.5% in 2008), in particular, appears to be somewhat dispiriting.


Chart 3.  Overall Olympic Medals Indices of Asian, Latin-American and African countries over the course of the last 20-year period

Imbalance in elite sports investment among countries is most likely one of the key reasons for this growing inequality in Olympic medals output. For instance, it has been reported by Barrie Houlihan and Jinming Zheng in their academic paper titled “The Olympics and elite sport policy: where will it all end?” that various developed sporting nations have been able to invest heavily into their elite sports infrastructure and programmes in recent Olympic cycles by significantly increasing their budgets allocated to selected sports disciplines with the greatest profitability, i.e., return-on-investment.

Although big budgets do not guarantee top outcomes in medal rankings, a consistent, long-term investment is nevertheless a mandatory requirement for any established and aspiring sporting nation. After all, a successful national elite sports system requires substantial financial resources in order to support full-time athletes and high-quality coaches, establish training facilities and performance diagnostic centres, afford costly training camps, develop athlete development programmes and provide athletes and coaches with the most advanced technology.

Another common aspect of traditional, wealthy sporting nations is that once a national government identifies elite sport success as a relevant policy objective it usually remains on a path of continuous investment into its domestic Olympic sports; that is, the systematic approach and long-standing commitment to elite sport development established in top sporting nations such as the USA, Great Britain, France, Germany and Australia, to name a few, will ensure the future sporting dominance of these countries. This will reduce the chances of other aspiring second- and third-tier sporting nations to regularly reach the Olympic medal top ranks, potentially widening the already existing Olympic medals gap between the traditional and aspiring sporting nations. And the fact that more than half (58%) of all participating nations at the 2012 London Olympics and the 2016 Rio Olympics were locked out of the Olympic medals race – i.e., all these countries failed to win a single medal – only gives more substance to the narrative of continuing medals inequality.

Moreover, the IOC’s decision to elect Tokyo, Paris and Los Angeles as the host cities of the three upcoming Summer Olympic Games could unintentionally speed up the recent divergence trend in Olympic medals distribution between developed and emerging countries. Since the Olympic host countries typically invest more heavily into their domestic elite sports developments ahead of Olympic Games, it is therefore reasonable to assume that these three developed (and wealthy) host countries, i.e., Japan, France and the USA, will be able to improve their performance in the overall medal count over the next decades by capitalising on their investment momentum and by exploiting their home advantage.

This brief report strongly suggests that developed countries will most likely continue to have a competitive edge over their newly emerging competitors as a result of their capital-intensive, established procedures of integrating sports development programmes into school systems and of incorporating advanced technologies into athlete training systems. Particularly, if the Olympic Medals Indices remain on the current trajectory during the upcoming 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the group of developed nations could ultimately dominate the Summer Olympic Games for decades to come.

* Developed Countries:  USA, Great Britain, Germany, Japan, Australia, France, South Korea, Italy, Netherlands, Canada, Spain, New Zealand, Denmark, Sweden and Switzerland
* Emerging Countries:  China, Russia, Ukraine, Hungary, Brazil, Iran, Poland, South Africa, Turkey, Argentina, Mexico, Colombia, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia

This report was published in April 2018

For Reference Citations:
Szubski C.: Trends in the Olympic Medals Index among developed and emerging countries – A reality check. Sportify Cities Brief Report, 2018.
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