Olympics: Why wealthy nations dominate the podium

For all nations, the staging of the Olympics itself is a sign of supremacy in the comity of nations. The large majority of about 150 countries, cannot even dream of hosting the Olympics in the near future

The book is scheduled to release in July end.

The Olympics has been a display of wealth and advancement as much as it is a show of sporting skills and physical prowess. Writer Binoo K John digs deep into the Games in his book Top Game: Winning, Losing and a New Understanding of Sport.


The Olympic Games are the showpiece of physical prowess and the single event that prompts and inspires a global physical culture. The quadrennial event is the one marker of the human intention and ability to stretch the boundaries of time, space, speed, strength and skill. It drives nations to higher levels of physical achievement and thousands of athletes to desperation, a few of them to immortality.


For all nations, the staging of the Olympics itself is a sign of supremacy in the comity of nations. The large majority of about 150 countries, cannot even dream of hosting the
Olympics in the near future. The approximate cost of $30 billion is far too much an unnecessary burden for many countries to burn. They may at best participate to announce
that they too are on this planet and they too have inhabitants who nurture ambitions. The Olympics is a display of wealth and advancement as much as it is a show of sporting skills
and physical prowess.

While poor nations or even developing nations cannot dream of hosting the Olympics, they cannot even aspire to win a medal. Even for huge economies like India, the Olympics is a quadrennial event to indulge in self-flagellation: a country with one billion people but no medal is the oft-heard lament. For emerging economies like India or backward economies, the situation is the same. For such countries, the Olympics is an event that constantly downgrades them. It is a humiliating experience which takes place every four years.

Some host nations which did not heed the dark clouds of a sliding economy have paid heavily; for example, Greece turned bankrupt about six years after hosting the 2004
Olympics. Built into all this is the notion of national self-confidence, pride and a certain jingoism. The Olympics is also a ‘nationalism’ project. Remember that all medal winners at the Olympics rush to cover themselves with the national flag after their victory is confirmed, unlike say, at a Grand Slam final.

As India’s pride and self-respect grew with its rising status as an economic power and it became the biggest market in the world for many high-end products, the country started
putting more money into sport and its infrastructure grew phenomenally. Six medals in London and four in Rio is a big leap for India in the Olympics, but India finished overall at
the shameful rank of sixty-seven in Rio, 2016. For a big economy it was a pedestrian performance. But India had just turned the corner about a decade before and it takes time to convert oneself into a sporting power. India now has private and focused programmes like the private Quest for Gold and the government’s funding programme, the Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS), but the terribly mismanaged sports federations have made the sport situation impossible.

However, India satisfies its nationalistic urges by being a cricketing power, a game which only ten countries play. I studied the medal tallies from the 1960 Rome Olympics onwards to substantiate my conclusion that wealth and Olympics superiority is closely linked. There are a few exceptions, of course.

But first, a look at the Rio Olympics, 2016. No backward country, no African or Asian nation and no underperforming economy figured prominently in the top fifteen of the Rio medal list. Have a look at the five top medal-winners (gold, silver and bronze) as of 17 August 2016.

US 28, 28, 28
UK 19,19,12
China 17, 15,19
Russia 12,12,14
Germany 11, 8, 7
Italy 8, 9, 8

The top five medal tally at the end of the Rio Olympics was:

US 38, 35, 32
UK 24, 22,14
China 22,18, 25
Germany 14, 8, 13
Russia 13, 16, 19

The final top five tally showed that all were economically advanced nations, which means that the medal tally almost corresponds to ranking in terms of wealth or gross domestic product (GDP).

US 46, 37, 38 = 121
UK 27, 23, 17 = 67
China 26, 18, 26 = 70
Russia 19,17, 20 = 56
Germany 17,10,15 = 42

The other wealthy nations were close behind:

6. Japan 12821 = 41
7. France 101814 = 42
8. S Korea 939 = 21
9. Italy 8128 = 28
10. Australia 81110 = 29

Here then, is the line-up of the world’s powerful sporting nations. This has been the line-up for most of the Olympics since 1960. These nations also form the so-called First World: advanced countries, with huge per capita incomes, though in some cases, small in size. These are the ten countries which have hosted the Olympics, some of them twice over.

In ranking, the Third World countries follow. Canada, though a wealthy nation finished twentieth with only four golds. Among the small and poor nations, only Jamaica and Kenya (six golds each) are in the top twenty. These two countries dominate the track events due mostly to individual brilliance. The US crossed a total tally of 100 medals, a nation far
superior to others as a sporting nation, a country which dominates in all fields.

In the 1968 Olympics, Russia had fifty golds, the US thirty-three, East Germany twenty, West Germany thirteen and Japan came fifth with thirteen golds. By 2000, in the Olympics held at Sydney, the US won thirty-seven golds and was followed by Russia (thirty-two) and China (twenty-eight). Australia, the host nation, came fourth with sixteen golds and Great Britain was tenth with eleven. In all the post-colonial Olympics starting from 1960, the top ten have been the same, only changing positions a bit here and there. China has been the outlier country.

Since 1980 or so, however, China went on a drastic and phenomenal development path which shocked a disbelieving world. By the Beijing Olympics of 2008, China was top of the tally. To look at China’s rise as a sporting nation is also to look at the nation’s rise as an economic power. In the 1960 Olympics, China performed like India, finishing with just one
silver. In 1968, nothing had changed. By the 2000 Sydney Olympics, China had touched twenty-eight gold medals and in Beijing with the obvious advantages of being the host
nation, China got fifty-one gold medals and pushed the US for the first time in forty years to the second place.

By the turn of the century, China had become an economic superpower. China’s GDP in 2006 was only $ 2.6 trillion (India is at $2.6 trillion in 2019) and by 2016 had touched an
unimaginable $9.4 trillion. Its growth as a sporting nation has not been paralleled.

(Extracted from Top Game: Winning, Losing and a New Understanding of Sport (Speaking Tiger, Rs 499 ) Releasing July end.

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