The Olympic Games, the world stage for nations to show off their most athletic citizens. Since the very first Summer Olympic Games in 1896 several nations have decisively led the world in medal count. The United States currently leads every other nation by at least twice the amount of medals with 2399 total medals within the last 26 summer Olympics. The second medal leader is the former Soviet Union with 1010 total medals in 9 summer Olympics.
The United States is the third most populous nation in the world, it seems only appropriate that they are the leader in all time Olympic medals. This is nonetheless an amazing feat, but what about the little guys? I always thought one of the most amazing things in the Olympics is that you have nations with populations in the 10,000’s competing against global super powers with populations in the 100’s of millions and even billions! So then what if these nations with much smaller populations doubled, tripled or exploded exponentially?
Below we have compared each nation’s population with the number of athletes that competed for that nation in 2012. I was incredibly surprised to discover that the nation with the most athletes per capita is the Cook Islands! Yes the Cook Islands; A nation in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean with a population of approximately 20,000 (2012). For approximately every 100,000 people the Cook Islands have 38.99 Olympic athletes… Or in this case because the population is so small for every 10,000 people there are 3.89 Olympic athletes from the Cook Islands.
So then if in 2012 the most athletic nation was the Cook Islands, what about in 2016? Which nation currently has the most athletes per capita?
As you can see the Cook Islands once again led in Olympic Athletes per capita! The Cook Islands have approximately 43 athletes per 100,000 citizens in these Olympic Games.
So, is it that people from the Cook Islands are descendants of Zeus himself sent down from Mount Olympus?
Well, the truth is far from that… In the history of the Summer Olympics the Cook Islands have not won a single medal and in the 2012 Olympics none of the Cook Island’s athletes advanced to a quarterfinal or semi-final in any sport.
World Map: Cook Islands
So how are the Cook Islands sending so many athletes to compete? According to Olympic rules, qualification varies by sport and for several sports any nation is allowed to enter a single athlete, regardless of their quality. For example, National Olympic Committee’s may permit swimmers regardless of time (1 per gender) under a Universality place, as long as they have no swimmers reaching either the standard entry time. There are several other rules that allow nations to send multiple athletes as long as they meet qualification standards.
Our method clearly isn’t the best way of measuring a nation’s athleticism and as Ricky Bobby said, “If you’re not first, you’re last!” – What really matters is medals per capita. Below we have graphed nations based on the number of medals per capita and as you can see this metric is a lot more telling. In 2012 the nation with the most medals per capita was Grenada; however they only earned one medal. This may be considered a fluke. What is more impressive are the second, third and fourth nations; Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago, and New Zealand respectively. These nations have won several medals despite their relatively small populations. Nations with larger populations such as the United States, China, and India ranked 49th, 73rd, and 85th respectively. According to our analysis the top 10 most athletic nations are as follows: Grenada, Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago, New Zealand, Bahamas, Slovenia, Hungary, Mongolia, Georgia, and Lithuania.
There may be better ways at measuring a nation’s athleticism and this argument truly lies in the definition of what it means to be an ‘athletic nation’. But in the meantime we can say that these nations are Olympic powerhouses despite their smaller populations.
Disclaimer: Due to the nature of the data analyzed one cannot rely entirely on the accuracy of our findings. There are several possible factors that can affect these results including the estimated populations of each nation. The UN Population Division counts "all residents, regardless of legal status or citizenship- except for refugees not permanently settled in the country of asylum, which are generally considered part of the population of their country of origin." For example, by that definition, non-resident Indians would be counted as part of the population of the countries where they reside. We also did not include Independent Olympic Athletes as there is no population for this group.
For full medal history – https://www.olympic.org/olympic-medals
For 2016 Olympic qualification requirements for every event – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Qualification_for_the_2016_Summer_Olympics