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Winners With Wallets

Richest Nations Tend to Haul In Most Olympic Medals

By Paul Blustein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 28, 2004; Page E01

So the United States and its $11 trillion, sports-obsessed society sits atop the medal board in Athens. Big deal.

And China, which has won nearly as many gold medals as the United States? With about one-fifth of the world's population and a burgeoning economy, let's just say a vast gene pool and a fattened wallet provide plenty of opportunity to cultivate winners.


(Kai Pfaffenbach -- Reuters)

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In an era of free markets and falling borders, it's time instead to celebrate the real champions of this year's Summer Games: Congratulations, Eritrea, with honorable mentions for Georgia, Ethiopia, Mongolia and Azerbaijan!

At least as of the end of competition yesterday, those nations ranked highest in terms of the number of medals won per dollars of gross domestic product -- a measure that helps show how well a nation is doing compared with its resources.

With a $734 million economy, Eritrea's capture of a bronze medal in the men's 10,000-meter race translates into 136 medals for each $100 billion of gross domestic product. Georgia's medal tally -- two golds and two silvers -- translates into 101.6 medals per $100 billion of GDP. Ethiopia is close behind, with a medals-to-GDP ratio of 90, while Mongolia is running fourth with 84, and Azerbaijan fifth with 70.

Other nations punching above their economic weight include Belarus, Bulgaria, Jamaica, Cuba, Russia and Australia. The United States, by contrast, is near the bottom among the 73 countries that have won at least one medal, with only about 0.83 medals per $100 billion of GDP. China's ratio is around 4, in the middle of the pack.

Other big losers? Oh, Canada: With $834 billion in GDP, the country has managed just nine medals, so its ratio is almost as disappointing as its giant neighbor to the south. India may be the biggest underachiever of all; despite a fast-growing economy and a billion people, the country has so far managed only a silver in double trap shooting.

There is little dispute that economic size wields major influence over how well a nation does at the Olympics.

Setting aside the now-fading market distortions of the former Eastern Bloc, which focused its centralized resources to grow hothouse athletes, wealthier countries enjoy substantial advantages in international athletic competition -- large pools of talent, enough leisure time for people to participate in sports, and extensive facilities, rewards and other support for athletes.

Academics who have studied past Olympics have found that GDP, the total value of goods and services that a nation produces, is probably the single best predictor of a country's success at the Games. "If you look just at economic power, you'll explain about 60 percent of the variation in medal totals," said Andrew B. Bernard, a professor at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College.


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