With the Games of the XXX Olympiad fully underway in London, I thought I would turn myself towards some Olympic numbers. I fully intended to do a look at declining records for speed across sports (swimming, track and field, cycling and so on) and still might get to it, but I was intrigued by a different statistic before I could get that effort off the ground.
China has become a dominant player in the Cold War-era game of topping the Olympic medal table. Since their return to the games in 1984 after 32 years – China boycotted the Olympics between 1952 and 84 due to the presence of the Republic of China, known in the IOC since 1979 as Chinese Taipei – they have won 385 medals in seven Summer Olympics. This obscures somewhat their recent run of strong results with 221 of those medals having come in the last three games. What prompted further inquiry was not the volume, however, but the composition of the total.
Most of what glitters…
What’s really remarkable in China’s Olympic history is the pattern of gold-heavy performance that has held for the last several games. In Beijing the Chinese team pulled in 100 medals, of which 51 were gold (51% if you’re paying attention). The 2004 team in Athens won 63 medals with 32 of them being gold (51%). In Syndey, in 2000, the Chinese won 28 medals as part of a total haul of 58 (48%). As of Saturday afternoon, August 4th, the Chinese team in London has won 53 total medals with 25 of them being gold (47%).
|Percentage of gold medals, all countries with 50+ medals in a single games since 2000|
This performance is pretty remarkable historically. In the history of the Olympics dating back to 1952, the first games I would consider “modern”, a nation has topped 50% 134 times. If we exclude those with less than 10 total medals, however, the number drops to 13. With only countries that won 50 or more there have only been 4 instances, two of which were China.
It pays to be big
Other big winners display a bias towards gold, though to a lesser degree than the Chinese. The top countries in the 1952 to 2008 period and their percentage of gold medals are the United States (41%), the Soviet Union (39%), East Germany (37%), Australia (30%) and China (42%). No country tops 40% between China’s 385 overall medals and New Zealand’s 81 total.
One possible explanation for large countries in general is that by virtue of their size, the best athlete from that country in a given event is more likely to be the best in the world. The second-best athlete, if results are distributed normally, would still be world-class, but not necessarily likely to pull in a medal.
Ancient Chinese secret?
So if being big explains some of this, why do the Chinese still outperform other big nations? The answer, until the World Anti-Doping Agency says otherwise, is that they choose their spots. It’s not that they don’t field athletes in sports in which they are not competitive, it’s that they maintain dominance in the sports they currently dominate even as they expand their breadth.
The top five sports for China, in terms of number of medals won, are Gymnastics (56), Diving (49), Weightlifting (43), Shooting (42) and Table Tennis (41). The gold percentages for these sports are 43%, 55%, 56%, 45% and 49%, respectively. While the overall percentage of medals won by China that are gold is 42%, these five sports have a gold percentage of 49%. Excluding these sports, China averages a very mortal 32%.
Why, then, is China able to dominate these sports for such a long period? Without offending these sports’ many competitors and fan, these are mainly niche sports for most of the world. It makes sense that the lowest gold percentage of these sports is Gymnastics because it is the one with the most global appeal, and competition. China has a massive pool of talent to draw from and has clearly elected to devote resources to these smaller sports. Any sport with local interest such as Table Tennis or Gymnastics makes their task that much easier. Without knowing precisely how much they are spending, I would speculate that a dollar (or yuan) spent on Weightlifting is far more productive in terms of gold medals than one spent on Swimming or Track and Field.
China’s success in these niche sports comes at a time when centrally planned national sports programs have been decimated. With the fall of the Soviet Union, a strong competitor in Weightlifting, Gymnastics and Shooting no longer exists. The governments that have taken over Eastern Bloc countries have generally behaved more like Western countries in terms of sports funding, leaving individual sports to fend for themselves based on interest and sponsorship.
The events being added to the Olympics have helped China too. Four new events (men’s and women’s 3 and 10 meter synchronized diving) were added to Diving starting in the 2000 Sydney games. Of the 16 golds awarded since then, China has won 13 of them with 2 additional silvers. The other major sports for China have similarly benefited: Table Tennis was only added in 1988 (China has won 20 of the 24 gold medals ever awarded – along with 21 of the other 52), Shooting went from 7 events up to 1980 to 10 in the 96-04 games and still has 9 events while Weightlifting and Gymnastics have been generally static.
Other nations wanting to outperform at the Olympics should take note: investment helps, but choose your investment targets wisely. Also, if you can, make sure that your main competitors change governments and stop competing so hard with you. That second one is more aspirational.
 The 1948 games, known in the host country as the austerity games, were too close to World War II for me to think of them as modern given the likely disruptions in the lives of athletes (and others) and the limited roster of countries participating. Pre-World War II games were much smaller events with 1936’s Berlin Olympics topping out at 49 countries while the 1952 Helsinki games featured athletes from 69. The explosion of countries being formed out of former colonies pushed the total number to 121 by 1972 in Munich.
 The Unified team of 1992 won 112 medals with 45 (40%) being gold, but only existed for that year and was an extension of the Soviet team.