(April 2010) At the recent Vancouver Winter Olympics, much was written about Canada’s “Own the Podium” initiative to lead the medal standings. That didn’t quite happen, as the host country’s neighbor, the United States, won the largest number of medals with 37, including nine gold, setting a Winter Games record. Yet with 14 gold medals (out of 26 overall), Canada set a record of its own—the most golds ever won by a country in a single Winter Olympics. Other countries that did well in the medal count were perennial winter-sports powers: Germany (30 medals, 10 gold) and Norway (23 medals, nine gold). All told, a record-tying 26 of the 82 participating nations earned at least one medal in Vancouver.

But a demographic examination of the medal standings shows that neither the Americans nor the Canadians owned the podium. PRB’s Crude Medal Rate (CMR), like the crude birth and death rate, considers a country’s population size. Calculating this measure involves dividing the total number of Olympic medals a country won in Vancouver by its total population, then multiplying the result by 1 million. As was the case in the previous three Winter Olympics, Norway was the big winner under this measure. The 23 medals the Scandinavian nation of 4.8 million residents won in 2010 translate into a rate of 4.8 medals per million (see Table 1). This was more than twice the CMR of 1.9 for second-place Austria, which likewise benefited both from its high overall medal total (16, including four gold) and its relatively small population of 8.4 million.

Table 1
Crude Medal Rate, 2010 Winter Olympics
(Medals per 1 million population, countries with at least one medal in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics)

Crude Medal Rate
Number of Medals 2009 Population (millions)
Norway 4.8 23 4.8
Austria 1.9 16 8.4
Slovenia 1.5 3 2.0
Sweden 1.2 11 9.3
Switzerland 1.2 9 7.8

Sources: Vancouver Olympic Committee, official website of Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, accessed at www.vancouver2010.com, on March 3, 2010; and PRB, 2009 World Population Data Sheet.

Indeed, countries with small populations benefit under the CMR. Slovenia, for example, won only three medals in Vancouver (two silvers in alpine skiing and a bronze in cross-country skiing), but its population of 2 million helped produce a CMR of 1.5 medals per million, good enough for third place on this measure. By contrast, the larger populations of both Canada (33.7 million) and especially the United States (306.8 million) yield CMRs of 0.8 and 0.1, respectively, putting both countries well behind Norway.

The two North American nations fare better under a second demographic measure, the General Olympic Medal Rate (GOMR). Conceptually similar to the general fertility rate (which measures the number of births per 1,000 women of childbearing age), this measure accounts for the actual number of athletes a nation sent to Vancouver—that is, the actual “population” eligible to win a medal. The 214 athletes the United States sent to the Olympics produced a GOMR of 17.3 medals for every 100 athletes—good enough to rank it sixth on this measure. The host Canadians, who had 205 participants in Vancouver, placed eighth with a GOMR of 12.7. CMR leader Norway ranked near the top on this measure as well; its GOMR of 23 medals per 100 participants put it in third place (see Table 2). But the podium “owner” on this measure was South Korea. The 46 South Korean athletes who competed in Vancouver won 14 medals (including six gold), producing a GOMR of 30.4 per 100 athletes. The Netherlands, who won eight medals despite sending just 34 athletes to Vancouver, ranked second at 23.5.

Table 2
General Olympic Medal Rate, 2010 Winter Olympics
(Medals per 100 athletes, countries with at least one medal in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics)

Country General Olympic Medal Rate Number of Medals Number of Participating Athletes
South Korea 30.4 14 46
Netherlands 23.5 8 34
Norway 23.0 16 79
Austria 20.3 16 79
Germany 19.7 30 152

Source: Vancouver Olympic Committee, official website of Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, accessed at www.vancouver2010.com, on March 3, 2010.

Of course, neither the CMR nor the GOMR accounts for all the complexities of the games. For example, the Olympics contain a mixture of individual and team events, and not all nations competed in every sport. And some athletes such as skiers and speed skaters competed—and won medals—in multiple events. Finally, regardless of the measure used, any talk about which nation really “owned the podium” obscures the fact that the athletes, not the countries they represent, are the ultimate Olympic champions.

Kelvin Pollard is a senior demographer at the Population Reference Bureau.