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How The Olympic Medal Table Explains The World

A medal tray that will be used during the victory ceremonies at the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games.
A medal tray that will be used during the victory ceremonies at the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games.

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.

The charts pinpoint the highs and lows of each nation not just inside the Olympic arena, but in terms of wars won and lost, economic growth and decline, and a nation's overall standing in the world.

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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 with other leading nations. The U.S. routinely won 15% to 20% of the medals awarded during most of the 20th century.

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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% of the medals in every Summer Olympics in which they took part, and they're expected to be above 10% again in Tokyo. The Americans won 12% of the medals (121 of 971) in Rio de Janeiro 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.

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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% of the medals. When Beijing hosted the Games in 2008, China won more golds than any other country (48), though not as many total medals as the U.S. (100 for China, compared with 112 for the U.S.).

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.

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Czarist Russia and its successor, the Soviet Union, were Olympic nonentities 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. Twelve of the 15 newly independent former-Soviet states were allowed to compete as the Unified Team in those Games.

The Russians have come down a few notches since then, and the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro 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.

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Germany was an Olympic powerhouse until World War I knocked it out of the Games after 1912, and the country didn't return until 1928. It 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 it 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 that 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 has steadily declined — 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.

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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, its 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-size 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% of the world's total — and won just six medals combined in Rio.

Better luck in Tokyo, guys.

Follow Greg Myre @gregmyre1.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: July 27, 2021 at 11:00 PM CDT
An earlier version of this story mistakenly said 1992's Unified Team comprised the 15 former Soviet states. It comprised 12 of the 15.