The Olympics are a wonder. At a macro-level, it is a family get-together of 200+ nations where all the international relations and the geopolitical clatter is replaced with sports. It’s a rare opportunity where xenophobia, racial stereotypes, and hatred are not accepted. At an individual level, it is hundreds of individual stories of ambition, sacrifice, and passion. Let’s look at the Olympic data.
The Olympics have been around for a long time and who does not like Olympic sports stats? Looking back over the last 10 summer Olympics, a few things you notice:
There is medal inflation. . . Forty years ago, there were 600 medals awarded at the summer Olympics. In 2008, 951 medals were awarded. This increase is largely because of the increase in the number of events from 21 (1972) to 28 (2008). Apparently, 2012 London does not have baseball and softball, so the number drops to 26 sports, only to go back up to 28 in the next Olympics with the addition of Golf and Rugby.
. . but it’s still damn hard to get a medal. Yes, the number of medals went up, but so did the numbers of athletes. Over the last forty years there have been ~ 7,700 medals awarded and approximately 85,500 athletes. Using a simple average, that comes to about 9% of the athletes getting medals. For the math types, that 9% is approximate because some athletes win more than 1 medal (e.g., Micheal Phelps) and some events award medals to the entire team (e.g., 1 gold medal for football, but it goes to 11+ players). On the graph below, you can see that the 1980 and 1984 Olympics were outliers because of cold-war related boycotts. In 1980 and 1984, there were fewer athletes, so the chances of actually winning a medal increased dramatically.
Lots of bronze medals: I thought that there was 1 gold, 1 silver and 1 bronze per event, but that is not what the data said. After a friend explained why, now I know that some events like judo, taekwondo and wrestling have 2 bronzes medals.
One commenter asked: What is the US vs. USSR medal counts (including Post-Soviet Republics)?
Well, it looks like the USSR & Post-Soviet Republics are really great competitors. Their medal counts were higher than the US in 8 of the 8 years when there were not boycotts.
The 80/20 Rule applies: Over the last 40 years, 129 countries have won Olympic medals. However, 23 of those countries have captured 80% of the cumulative medals.
Mighty East Germans: The East Germans’ Olympic medal count remains the 4th highest in the list of 129 countries with medals. This struck me as particularly impressive since the Berlin wall fell in 1989. They won all 384 medals between 1972-1988.
They New York Times does great work with visualization. This bubble chart of Olympic Medals by countries is no exception. You can see by screenshot how big the East German bubble is in 1988. Click on the link and enjoy this graph with a slider on it.
Source: Olympic rings photo, Flickr, spcbrass