Rio Olympics: How countries performed

Dominance of few sports for top medal winners continued at the Rio Olympics, even as less than half of the athletes participating brought home medals

India has shown its strength in boxing, shooting, wrestling and badminton in the Games it has participated over the years. Photo: Reuters
India has shown its strength in boxing, shooting, wrestling and badminton in the Games it has participated over the years. Photo: Reuters

Two stories which appeared in Mint (read here and here) looked at the performance of countries in Olympics and noted some patterns which could explain the results. Better performing countries getting most of their medals in a few sports, larger contingents getting more medals and host countries improving their performances were some of these patterns. Have the Rio Olympics 2016 furthered the trend? We looked at a few numbers to provide a snapshot of how countries have performed and the role of certain sports and top athletes in shoring up medal counts.

Most countries win majority of medals in few sports. Of the top 10 highest medal winners this Olympics, Canada achieved over 72% of its total medal haul from four sports—athletics (6), swimming (6), cycling (2) and diving (2). US, with 121 medals, won 77 medals or 63.6% of total from three sports—swimming, athletics and gymnastics. Among the top 10, China had the least skewed medal distribution, with only 34.3% of its medals coming from the top three sports.

One question here arises whether India should identify competitive advantages in select sports and divert resources towards developing them. For instance, India has shown its strength in boxing, shooting, wrestling and badminton in the Games it has participated over the years.

Many other reasons have been identified for India’s poor performance in Olympics. Udit Sheth, managing director of Trans Stadia, a company providing sports infrastructure, said that individual medals are a result of athletes beating all odds rather than a thriving sports culture. India needs to improve things at the grass-roots level so that there can be a pipeline of well-trained athletes across sports, added Sheth. A Mint story explained in detail how wider availability of sporting infrastructure, a functional sports policy and adequate incentives have helped the state of Haryana supply a bulk of India’s Olympians and medal winners. The lessons are clear. An effective sports policy and popular sports culture is what it takes to produce Olympians.

That said, individual performances do matter a lot. Countries also seem to bet significantly on a few athletes to push up their medal counts. Decorated athletes such as Michael Phelps bring home much more than just accolades. Data shows that the highest medal winning athletes in the top 10 countries contributed significantly to their country’s overall medal count. For instance, six of the top 10 highest medal winning athletes at the Rio Olympics came from the US, constituting over 23% of its total medal win of 121. For smaller countries, this is even more pronounced. Katinka Hosszu, who won four medals at Rio, alone constituted almost 27% of Hungary’s total medal win.

Available research shows that the bigger the contingent a country has, the higher are its chances of grabbing a medal. While that might be true, a larger share of these athletes does not win any medal, as the chart below shows.

Host countries have been known to witness a temporary surge in the number of medals they win as they are able to ensure higher participation. As against a total of 17 medals won in London Olympics 2012, Brazil won 19 medals at the Rio Olympics, with the highest increase in the number of gold medals.

India’s medal haul has been below expectations in the Rio Olympics. However, inspiring performances by some of our athletes, especially women, have earned a lot of praise. Experts have also pointed out how qualification in a lot of sports which were hitherto unheard of points towards an improvement in India’s sporting talent. For this young talent to become successful, we need to provide them with facilities before competing, not just after they win medals, said Sheth.

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