EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was originally published during the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro and has been updated for the Tokyo Olympics this summer.
Imagine a Martian trying to make sense of this world and the only available data are the Summer Olympic medal tables from the past century.
How much would that explain? Quite a lot, it turns out. In fact, it would be challenging to find anything else so concise that says so much about the past century as the tables below.
The four bar charts show the countries that usually win the largest share of medals — the United States, China, Russia and Germany — and how they have performed since 1912.
They pinpoint the highs and lows of each nation, not just inside the Olympic arena, but wars won and lost, economic growth and decline, and a nation’s overall standing in the world.
And much more. For starters, you can tell instantly when the two world wars were raging, forcing the cancellation of the Olympics in 1916, 1940 and 1944.
Another point that leaps out is the remarkable consistency of the U.S. compared to other leading nations. The U.S. routinely won 15 percent to 20 percent of all the medals awarded during most of the 20th century.
That figure has been edging down over the past few decades, a reflection that the games have gone from a Western-dominated event to a more globalized competition featuring the rise of many developing nations.
In other words, a lot like world politics and the global economy in general.
Still, U.S. athletes have taken home at least 10 percent of the medals in every Summer Olympics in which they took part, and they’re expected to be above 10 percent again in Tokyo. The Americans won 12 percent of the medals (121 of 971) in Rio de Janerio in 2016, more than any other country, as has been the case since 1996.
Two U.S. performances broke the mold — 1980 and 1984 — and they also signaled the political turmoil of those Cold War years. In 1980, the U.S. boycotted the Moscow Games because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan a year earlier.
And in 1984, the U.S. had a huge medal haul in Los Angeles, in part because the Soviets and their communist allies returned the favored and boycotted the U.S.-hosted games.
China’s absence from the Olympics for most of the 20th century reflects a nation roiled by political upheavals for decades, followed by an inward-looking Communist government. But China began opening to the world around 1980 and took part in its first Summer Olympics in 1984, where it made a strong initial impression.
China’s performance has continued to surge dramatically and it now takes home close to 10 percent of the medals. When Beijing hosted the games in 2008, China won more golds than any other country (51), though not as many overall medals as the U.S. (110 to 100).
Starting from zero three decades ago, China now has the second strongest Olympic team — and the world’s second biggest economy — trailing only the U.S. on both counts.
Czarist Russia and its successor, the Soviet Union, were Olympic non-entities until the Cold War commenced after World War II. The Olympics then became an all-out competition between the Soviets and the Americans, with athletics as a proxy war. The stakes were international prestige, and winning more medals buttressed claims of a superior political and economic system.
The Soviets invested enormous resources in Olympic sports and quickly surpassed the U.S., winning the most medals at every Summer Games from 1956 to 1992, except for 1968, when the Americans edged them (and in 1984, when the Soviets stayed home).
The “Soviet Union” even topped the charts in 1992, though the country had collapsed and ceased to exist a year earlier. The 15 newly independent nations were allowed to compete as the Unified Team in those games.
The Russians have come down a few notches since then, and the 2016 Rio Games reflected this. Nearly 120 Russian athletes — close to a third of the team — were banned because of a doping scandal. Nonetheless, Russia had the fourth largest medal haul with a total of 56.
One footnote: If you add the medals won by the 15 former Soviet states, they still top every other country these days, though they also send many more athletes than any one country.
Germany was an Olympic powerhouse until World War I knocked them out of the Games after 1912, and they didn’t return until 1928. They came back with a vengeance in 1936 as Adolf Hitler turned the Games into a Nazi propaganda spectacle.
But after that, Germany was gone again until 1952 as they rebuilt from the ashes of World War II. The Germans then made a second roaring comeback as two nations, East and West Germany.
Communist East Germany built something akin to a sports factory, winning an astounding number of medals with performances that were eventually shown to be heavily fueled by doping.
Still, when Germany reunited in 1990, the conventional wisdom was that the country would win so often the German national anthem would become the Olympic theme song.
It didn’t work out that way. Germany still performs well and is a leader among Western European nations. However, its share of medals steadily declines — a lot like Europe’s political and economic clout on the world stage.
So there you have it, a century of world history in four charts.
But there’s more. As we pored over the tables, we were intrigued by the overachievers and underachievers around the globe.
The chart is self-explanatory, but it’s so striking we’ll reinforce it here.
New Zealand and Jamaica clearly punched far above their weight at the 2016 Games, just as they have done in the past.
In Jamaica’s case, their blazing sprinters brought them Olympic glory, led by Usain Bolt. The country of just 2.9 million people won 11 medals.
New Zealand took home medals in a wide range of sports, including rowing, sailing, track and field, canoeing, cycling, golf, rugby and shooting. With a population of just 4.7 million, the country claimed 18 medals.
If you combine these two countries with three other smallish nations that excelled — the Netherlands (19 medals), Azerbaijan (18 medals), and Denmark (15 medals) — you have five nations with a combined population of 40 million that won 81 medals. If those five were a single, medium-sized nation, they would have had the second highest medal count.
At the other end of the scale, five of the world’s most populous countries (India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Nigeria and Bangladesh) have more than 2.1 billion people — almost 30 percent of the world’s total — and won just six medals combined in Rio.
Better luck in Tokyo, guys.
Follow Greg Myre @gregmyre1.
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