Measuring relative success is all about getting as near as possible to comparing like with like. Looking closely at the data helps.

We instinctively understand the difference between relative and absolute figures. For example,  we know that comparing the numbers of babies born in one country with another provides much less interesting and/or useful information than looking at the birth rate  i.e. babies born per 1,000 population, in each of those countries. We also know that just hearing that two people got a 5% pay rise means something very different if we also know that one earns £5,000 and the other £50,000 per year.  In other words, we know that expressing measures as ratios (one number divided by another) usually offers better insight into what is really happening.

In the same way, when reading through the official (the absolute figures-based) Olympic medal tables, we know that the medals gained by a country depend not only on the training its athletes have undertaken but also on a range of quantifiable other factors such as a country’s population size and wealth as well as other fundamental factors such as the number of athletes from that country who are participating in the Games!.

This morning’s Radio 4 ‘Today’ programme included an interview with Professor Stefan Szymanksi, Sports Economist at the University of Michigan in which he talked about the factors underlying Olympic medal performance. He encouraged us to consider the all time medal table and which countries have done well since the Olympics started.  Two highly populated and wealthy parts of the world stand out. The US has won 15% of the Olympic medals ever awarded and European countries have won 16%. Whilst there is an easily understood correlation betweeen population, wealth and medal-achieving performances over the long-term, trying to use those same factors to predict in the short-term seems to work less well because many other individual factors have to be taken into account, including just how much their country invests in the sport (and presumably, how much they as individuals want/are inspired to win and things like ‘home advantage’  too.)

Taking population and wealth into account,  some of the countries which are punching above their ‘population and wealth’ weight include: New Zealand, Australia and Norway and Finland (not just in Winter-sports)

In outstripping its one gold medal performance in 1996 in Atlanta, in (as we speak) taking third place in the medal table and in (fingers crossed) heading towards a 20+ medals total, Team GB is way ahead of China in per capita terms and doing very well indeed. Taking into account team size and GDP, Team GB is doing slightly less well.

The RSS helped to get together a team from Imperial College which worked with the Guardian Datablog to develop the alternative medal league table.  This new table’s rankings includes weighted data, data which are based on figures adjusted by population, GDP and team size.