(September 2004) Just as it did in 1996 and 2000, the United States led the medal count at the recent Summer Olympics in Athens with 103 total medals, 35 of which were gold. Russia (92 medals, 27 gold), 2008 host China (63 medals, 32 gold), and 2000 host Australia (49 medals, 17 gold) followed in the medal standings—also as was the case four years earlier in Sydney. And although a demographic examination of the medal count produced a far different medal picture, it likewise had a repeat champion from Sydney.
The Crude Medal Rate (CMR), like the crude birth and death rate, considers a country’s population size. Calculation of this measure involves dividing the total number of Olympic medals a country won in Athens by the country’s total population, then multiplying the result by 1 million.
As was the case in 2000, the Bahamas were the big winners under this measure. The two medals (one gold, one bronze) this island nation of 317,000 won in track and field translated into a rate of 6.3 medals per million. This is more than twice the rate of Australia and Cuba, which tied for second at 2.4 medals per million. Both Australia and Cuba finished among the top 12 nations in the overall medal count, but having relatively small populations (20.1 million and 11.3 million, respectively) helps their CMR standing.
By contrast, the large U.S. population of 293.6 million yields a CMR of 0.4 medals per million, placing it in a tie for 35th place among the 75 countries that won at least one medal in Athens.
Of course, the CMR does not account for all the complexities of the Olympics. First of all, a country’s population often does not correlate to the number of athletes it sends to the Games. (The U.S. population, for example, is more than 14 times that of Australia, but they each sent large athletic delegations to Athens—531 and 482, respectively.)
The Olympics also contain a mixture of individual and team events, and not all nations competed in every sport. And, as the case of American swimmer Michael Phelps illustrates, some athletes competed and won medals in more than one event.
Regardless of the measure used, any talk about which nation did best in the medal standings obscures the fact that the athletes, not the countries they represent, are the ultimate Olympic champions.
Kelvin Pollard is a senior demographer in the Domestic Programs Department at the Population Reference Bureau.