Which country is more likely to win the largest number of medals at Tokyo 2020?
No points for guessing either United States or China.
In fact, the US has won more medals than any other country since the 1996 Games in Atlanta.
But what are the reasons behind that success? Data shows that the size of a country’s economy is strongly linked to the number of medals it can win.
Having a large economy and population means not only can a nation pick its athletes from a large talent pool, but also fund its elite team to perform at their very best.
But not every country is as big as China or the United States.
What if a country’s medal haul was adjusted for its population or wealth? Would the incumbents continue to dominate?
Under our alternative medals table, countries are ranked either by medals per gross domestic product (size of an economy) or by medals in proportion to their population size.
Based on the size of its $1.3bn economy, Grenada, a small low-income country in the Caribbean, would have won the equivalent of 94 medals.
Jamaica’s 11 medals in the 2016 Games would translate to 38 when adjusted for its population of three million people.
The UK is on page five of our table. Its status as the fifth largest economy in the world works against it, shrinking the 67 medals won in Rio to just two.
But even after accounting for its small economy and population, North Korea punches far above its weight (despite not winning in boxing) on our count.
Dr Johan Rewilak, lecturer in sports economics and finance, says this is because some countries “manufacture Olympic success” to gain an outsized number of Olympic medals given their GDP and population sizes.
There are others, such as India with 1.35 billion people, that often finds themselves at the bottom of most medal tables.
Dr Rewilak explains that cultural reasons and the country’s strong preference for cricket diverts talent and resources from Olympic sports.
Although every country is not destined for a medal at the Olym, some have better odds of striking gold than others.
As the host country, Japan has a unique chance of success on the medals table.
Data shows that five out of the past six host nations outperformed their previous medal hauls.
So, does that mean Japan is likely to win more medals this time than the 41 it gained in 2016?
There are exceptions, as with the United States in 1992. The breakup of the Eastern Bloc after the fall of the Soviet Union benefited the US on the medal table.
Despite all the data, the unpredictable nature of sports and indiual athletes’ ability makes the final results far from certain.
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