Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Olympic Medal Counts in Perspective

Just after the 2012 London Olympics wrapped up, I saw the clever and thorough work of Craig Nevill-Manning's "http://www.medalspercapita.com/."  It's a pretty fair question, actually.  He also looks at medals by GDP, which is probably an even more practical denominator.  Something about putting the glory of Olympic victory in the perspective of how many folks share it (and the talent pool from where the competitors were drawn) was captivating and I spent some time flipping through this and that Olympic games to see that list shift about.  Then the historic trends of that performance started to be the most interesting thing to me.  In order to lock down that dimension, a colleague of mine, Chris Abraham, and I dropped all of the data into a spreadsheet and started drawing out the historic performances.  I never posted the result because it wasn't as chart-y as I'd hoped and the best way of visualizing the era turned out to be pretty cellular.  But I stumbled on it this morning with some fresh eyes and realized that if I thought cellular was the best way of looking at it, why did I feel like I had to flower it up for everybody else?  Then I had a brief existential crisis and posted this image (long after anybody would be interested in it)...

All sorts of cool things to track, here!  Some of my favorite things to look for are:

  • Blips of profound glory.  Occasionally, nations with very low populations occasionally strike (Bermuda, Tonga, the Virgin Islands, and Granada).  You could play divide-by-zero snob and try to discount that, but think about how cool that is!  In 1976 Bermudans were well represented!
  • Persistent Cinderellas.  The Bahamas, and even Estonia, have consistently rocked despite their small populations.  Well played.
  • Conspicuous loss.  Some countries have massive populations and even more massive medal deficits.  Everybody has heard about how Michael Phelps has more medals than India -ever.  This raises interesting questions of economic priorities and classes, sport recognition, and the non-linear relationship of huge populations to medals.
  • Turnarounds.  This is probably the most interesting part for me.  Spain and South Korea paint clear pictures of improvement, while South Africa and Argentina show diminishing rates.
  • Geopolitical shifts.  Underpinning the whole graphic is the set of lifelines representing the births, mergers, and deaths of nation states, themselves.  The Soviet Union appears mid-century and disappears just as abruptly.  Not coincidentally, constituent states show a gap in that period.  Entities like China have historical aliases (the Republic of China) that jump from one named political track to another.  Fascinating.  Actually, a similar but simpler graphic of only the lifelines of nation states would be awesome to see.  Does anybody know where I can find that?


  1. BTW, are you using historical population counts or just 2012 stats?

    1. Historical, otherwise this would be heresy! Craig did the legwork, here's the punt:

  2. The chronological right-to-left-ness of this just hurts to look at. What's the thinking behind that?