That is the main finding of research from one of the world’s leading sports statistics groups, led by David Forrest, Professor of Economics at Salford Business School.
The Madrid Sportometrics Group* study aims to ‘benchmark’ the medal haul of more than 140 of the countries which took part in the Olympic Games. The Group has calculated that Great Britain’s total of 65 medals is 28 more than could be expected, taking into account influences including Gross Domestic Product (GDP), population, government expenditure on recreation and home advantage.
In the ‘weighted’ medal table, Russia performs even more impressively than Britain, with its 82 medals a huge 50 higher than the 32 which could be typically expected. And the good news for Australian sports fans, who have bemoaned an apparently desperate medal count from their team in London, is that, relatively speaking, their athletes have won nearly three times as many medals as a country with their population, wealth and investment in sport should deliver, with 35 medals compared to a benchmark figure of only 12.
Explained Professor Forrest: “When forecasting the number of Olympic medals a competing nation should win under normal circumstances, the past Olympic performance and sports heritage of that nation makes a significant difference to the final total.
“However, we thought it would be worthwhile to determine how countries should perform as if they were all effectively starting from scratch, with no history of competing in the Olympic Games but with all other factors being considered.
“These include GDP and population, government spending on recreation, the impact of hosting the next or next-but-one Olympics, and the effect of current and former communist political systems, as many communist or totalitarian states have a long-established practice of diverting considerable resources to Olympic sport for reasons of international prestige.
“The benchmark table shows that, far from performing badly, Australia punched well above their weight in this Olympics. The team’s London 2012 collection of 35 medals may be the lowest for 20 years but this just emphasises how incredibly well Australia has done in Olympic competition – a weighted medal total of 12 is where they should typically be.
“And, even taking into account the legacy of communist state support for sport, Russia won many more than twice the number of medals we would expect, while Ukraine gained 15 more compared to our weighted score.”
But while a combination of high population and wealth can take a country to the top of the medal table in absolute terms, the study suggests that there is a law of diminishing returns, as the USA and China appear to underperform given the very large size of their economies.
In addition, the research indicates that Brazil has a long way to go before Rio de Janeiro in 2016 to emulate the incredible success of Team GB over the last two weeks. “In Olympic terms, Brazil is a real sleeping giant. Our study suggests that the country should have won around 34 medals at London 2012, taking into account the fact that they are hosts next time round and the growth of the Brazilian economy among other factors,” said Professor Forrest. “So, unless there is a major change between now and 2016, the team’s 17 medals, although an increase of two on 2008, doesn’t point to the Rio Games being a spectacular medal success for the home country.”
The study also reveals interesting trends for distinct groups of countries. Apart from Great Britain, western European nations’ actual medal table rankings tend to be close to where the statistical research would suggest, apart from Spain, whose 17 London 2012 medals fall well below the 26 proposed by the model.
In common with Australia, other smaller and medium-sized Commonwealth countries – including New Zealand, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and Kenya – also outperform their predicted position in the weighted table.
“These medal counts could suggest the relative importance of Olympic sports historically to these nations,” said Professor Forrest. “Tennis and basketball, traditionally popular sports in Spain, are Olympic events but only award a small number of medals compared to athletics and swimming, for example, which are key events for the likes of Jamaica and Australia respectively.”