Medals per capita, GDP: Ranking the real Olympic superpowers

Over the past two weeks, the medal table has told us which countries are leading the battle for Olympic supremacy. But if you try to level the playing field by accounting for population and GDP, the contest for bragging rights becomes less clear-cut.

China, U.S. dominate the standings, but smaller countries have much to celebrate

Sprinter Kirani James, centre, has made the tiny Caribbean country of Grenada proud with his win in the 400 metres. Grenada, with a population of a little more than 100,000, sent just nine athletes to London. (Eddie Keogh/Reuters)

Over the past two weeks, the medal tables told us which countries were leading in the battle for Olympic supremacy.

The names at the top — the U.S., China, Britain, France, etc. — were hardly shocking. They're among the world's biggest and most developed countries and have always done well in Olympic sports.

But if you level the playing field — and account for such things as the size of a country and its GDP per capita — the contest for Olympic bragging rights becomes less clear-cut.

Some countries did relatively more with less: they outperformed based on the number of athletes they sent to London or because of their smaller population base.

So how does the performance of Grenada — an island nation of a little more than 100,000 that claimed a gold medal with a team of just nine athletes — compare to the Olympic giants? Well, it depends on how you rank the IOC nations.

An alternate medal table

The standard medal tables that you see rank countries either by the total medals won, as the CBC does, in which Canada is in 13th spot. Or counting golds first, as the BBC does, which leaves Canada much lower on the list, tied for 36th place.

We've added some extra factors to the table below, along with each country's final medal haul, to give a different perspective on who had the most, shall we say, efficient Olympics.

Below you will find rough calculations of what you might call medal efficiency based on the size of a country's population and of its Olympic squad, as well its gross domestic product (GDP), in US dollars.

Click on a header in the top row to re-sort the columns from lowest to highest. The first four categories tell the story of the current medal standings. The next four will rank the competitors by efficiency, with the lowest number being the most efficient, at least theoretically. 

Big teams, more medals

As you can see from the chart below, the richer or more populated countries — like those in the G7 club or the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) group of developing nations — generally sent bigger teams to London.

And in broad terms, these countries took home large medal hauls.

In this graphic, the number of medals won is reflected in the relative size of each individual bubble.

Small teams, big performances

But some teams with fewer athletes were actually more efficient than the Olympic powerhouses, even if their performances are buried in the overall medal tally.

The chart below takes the total number of medals won by a country and divides by the number of athletes sent to London.

(Admittedly, this measure gives an advantage to countries who don't participate in team sports.)

The top 5 and bottom 5 are displayed. Shorter bars mean the most efficiency, longer bars the least.

Take, for example, Botswana: Its four-athlete delegation has one medal to its credit. So that is one medal for every four athletes or 1:4.

At the other extreme, the 77-member Portugese team with its one medal would have a ratio of 1:77.

By this measure, Canada would sit tied for 51st in the overall medal table.

Performance by population

The bigger a country's population base, the more potential athletes it has to choose from — and ultimately the more medals it has a shot at. Or so the theory goes.

In China's case, with 1.34 billion people and 88 medals to its credit, that seems to apply.

But when population is brought into the equation, some smaller countries punch above their weight (to borrow a boxing cliché).

New Zealand claimed one Olympic medal for each 350,000 residents. Same with The Bahamas.

At the other extreme, India has just one medal for each 200 million of its citizens in the world's second-most-populous country.

By this measure, Canada sits at 39th in the overall medal table with one medal for every 1.92 million people.

Sources: 2011 GDP and population - World Bank; Team size and medals - London Olympic organizers