Bigger, richer, stronger? Not always at the Games

The most stunning phenomenon in the past 24 years of Olympic history is indisputably the rise of China as a major power in the sports arena, commensurate with its rise as a major global economic and political force. China's ranking in the International Olympic Committee's medal table has steadfastly improved from No 11 in the 1988 Seoul Games to the top spot at the 2008 Beijing Games.

However, historically, the country that gains most respect from me is not China. In terms of getting the most bang for your buck in sports, no country beats Cuba. With a per capita gross domestic product at a little over US$5,000, the little island nation has consistently stood in the league of major world powers, beating the likes of France, Spain, Australia and Great Britain.

Cuba was absent from the 1988 Seoul games. But in the next four Olympics, it ranked No 5, No 8, No 9 and No 11. It did have a setback in Beijing but, compared to the super wealthy Gulf oil states - such as Kuwait and United Arab Emirates, which got no more than a single medal each over the years - Fidel Castro's achievement in sports is truly phenomenal. I reckon its expenditure per medal must be the lowest in the world.

Looking at medals from a population basis, India has failed miserably. With a population of well over a billion, India's haul has been paltry. In the 1988 Seoul Games, it got no medal at all. In the 1992 Barcelona Games, zero again. In the next three Games, India finally got one medal each time (two bronzes and one silver). Then in Beijing in 2008, it finally got three medals (one gold and two bronzes).

Another populous country, Mexico, hasn't fared much better either. With over 110 million people, it has produced only three gold medals in the past six Olympics.

At the other end of the scale, look at Jamaica. With a population of only 2.8 million, it has won a total of 35 medals in the past six Games.


Another interesting phenomenon is the wholesale retreat of the former Soviet bloc countries in Eastern Europe. The former USSR used to be the No 1 sports superpower in the world. Yet Russia has had to settle for third spot in the past two Games.

Finally, how do some regional rivals compare? France, for example, perpetually lags behind Germany, though it's ahead for now in the 2012 standings.

Watching the Olympics is not just all about the medal tally, of course. As we enjoy the wonderful competition among athletes, it might also be worthwhile reflecting on the social and economic context under which these medals are won.

John Gong is associate professor at the Beijing-based University of International Business and Economics. johngong@