Differences in Olympic Performance by Country

India, with a population of 1.2 billion, has won 3 Olympic medals. (I believe this page will update as the games proceed, so the number may be greater when you check!) New Zealand, with a population of 4.4 million, about 250 times smaller, has won 9 medals. Per person, New Zealand is taking roughly 2000 times as many medals as India.

Well, New Zealand is much richer, and so the people have more time for athletics, right? But North Korea, Kenya, and Ethiopia are all poorer than India, with many fewer people, and each has won more medals. China is not a particularly rich country, but is leading the medal count right now. China's ($ of GDP / medal) is $150 billion, while India's is $1 trillion.

I doubt the correct explanation is, "Well, Indians are spazzes." No, they seem innately just about as coordinated and physically capable as any other people on the earth. Aside from the very real help that wealth provides, I think the explanation is almost entirely cultural.

Just like with IQ differences between nations. All humans are so little different genetically that our basic capabilities vary only minutely. ("Yeah, did you watch the Olympic sprints?" someone asks me. Well, thanks for making my point: yes, those of West African descent dominate, but they are only beating out Japanese, Chinese, Polish, Iranian, Lithuanian and other sprinters by a few tenths of a second. It is merely that their slight physiological advantage, in a competition so intense, is enough to ensure that all of the top spots are going to them.) But where a culture directs those capabilities can vary immensely. If one is raised in a culture that focuses the intellect on the ability to track peccaries through a rain forest, an IQ test measuring one's ability to manipulate symbols is not likely to capture one's true intelligence. And if people from the rain forest devised IQ tests, I'm pretty sure the graduating class of Harvard would come out as a bunch of nincompoops.

For the overriding importance of culture and environment on achievement, consider this: Yes, those of West African descent dominated the men's 100 meter sprint. But they were all from the US, Jamaica, Britain, Trinidad, and so on. West Africa, we might note, is chock full of West Africans, far more than live in all of the countries with top sprinters combined. (Nigeria alone contains about 170 million West Africans.) Yet the top place achieved by a sprinter actually from West Africa was 20th.


  1. The main differences seem to be best explained by economic/population/home nation advantages:

    The remaining explanatory factors for Jamaica and India are probably cultural. Indians love their cricket and the East Asians do tend to promote winning medals as a form of national power.

    1. "Daniel K.N. Johnson, a professor of economics at Colorado College, predicts that the U.S. will top the podium most often, followed by China, second, and Russia, third, with the host country, Great Britain, placing fourth."

      Oops! Right now it's China, the US, Britain, Russia.

    2. And he was wildly off for China in 2008. And Britain is already above his gold count for this year with five days left. The press release is very impressed by the fact that he could retrofit his model to match past Olympics! Well, any model can be retrofitted to match any past data. Let's see how he does this year.

  2. Anonymous3:11 AM

    Regarding your armchair analysis of intelligence vs culture and environment, I wholeheartedly agree.

    In fact, you can take an individual from a third world country who scores poorly, place him into a first world country (nothing else), and still yield a greater score on an IQ test (all due to culture and environment). Further, you can take a first-world dweller with a high IQ, place him in, say, the northern Inuit territory, and he would be a complete dullard (especially regarding direction, travel and identifying position in what would seem to be a sameness of locality identifiers).

    There simply is no gauge to measure intelligence in any objective manner, because in the end most of what we use to identify intelligence goes beyond what would be found in the absence of accumulated knowledge.

    If you never saw or heard of such accumulated knowledge, you would immediately be labelled a dullard, even though most of these things only subjectively increase our satisfaction on this planet, they are not at root responsible for the survival of any singular individual, they only improve the rates thereof. However, it is clear that individuals can increase such knowledge through experience!

    This is not to discount the greater intellectual achievements of man, but only to make a distinction between what is meant to improve our lives beyond mere survival and what is meant to sustain our lives, in the individual sense (or, the only true way that intelligence can be spoken of). Even if you took 20 groups of 10, all from different areas and races, and subjected them to intensive intelligence testing, all would exhibit profound differentiation in intelligence as tested by today's standards. Sure, some of these finding can be repeatable, but that changes with a change of environment and culture.

    With this said, one cannot construe this as believing that all persons are essentially born equally capable, because there is obviously the past to consider. This brings in implications of genetics, epigenetics, environment, familiarity, culture, status, and a host of other variables (almost infinite). But I don't think that one can necessarily make such judgement upon racial lines, especially when considering the other variables that act upon an individual, his offspring, the subjective criteria of testing, and an infinite host of other variables. Some people are absolutely dumb by any standard and cannot learn new material-- they represent a minute portion of the population.

    Some people question my own judgement in claiming that I myself am not an intelligent person. However, they apparently do not see intelligence through the same lens as I do. Sure, I score fantastically on tests, often in the 99 percentile, but I know that I was essentially raised and taught to score well given a certain set of criteria. I am a product of my culture and environment dealing with those who are also a product of my culture and environment. Having travelled extensively and experienced other cultures and environments, I can say with surety that I am dumb as an ox. Don't let me fool you.

  3. Gene, this is pretty brilliant. I'd add a point: I suspect those sprinters of non-West-African descent who are today's also-rans are faster in absolute terms than many West-African winners of yesteryear.

    Switching to distance running, there used to be a lot of loose talk about an East African genetic advantage in that discipline, even a specifically Kenyan advantage. But if you really investigated, you discovered that:

    * Children from the Kenyan highlands and similar East-African regions start daily running at an early age - primarily to get to and from distant schools
    * There is a vast sports industry in Kenya (and Ethiopia) dedicated to identifying talented distance runners and developing them - it is genuinely big business

    It's amazing how much "genetic advantage" there is in a population trying to be good at something and able to reap the full rewards of doing so.

    1. Thanks, Jim! And interesting stuff about the East Africans.

  4. Culture is probably important, but institutional factors are equally important. The reason countries like North Korea and China win so many medals is not that they have athletic minded cultures. It's that the governments in those countries are willing to devote lots of resources to the task because of the prestige it confers.

    Incidentally, I don't know if you saw this NYT feature about the 100 meter sprint. It would seem that there is a Flynn Effect for medalists.

    1. Yeah, I was sort of subsuming institutions under "cultural factors." Probably I should have said "environment."

  5. I largely agree with your 'genetic sentiments,' especially in regards to comparing bulk populations to one another (i.e. IQ and the Wealth of Nations type theses), but I think maybe you aren't quite right in one respect.

    When you compare Olympic athletes, you are not comparing one bulk population against another. You are comparing 'freaks of nature' from one population against 'freaks of nature' from another. Each of those people possesses a unique set of genes which has conferred statistically exceptionally rare talents. I'm pretty sure that there is a strong genetic component as far as that goes -- I don't think, for example, that many people could have come up with the General Theory of Relativity besides a very tiny population of Einsteins, and I don't think that many people would disagree with that opinion. Those runners may have beaten one another by a few tenths of a second, but they would have beaten me by minutes.

    Even a relatively small deviation in allele frequencies between populations could have a pretty significant effect on the number (and nature) of such 'freaks of nature' that a population will tend to produce. I suspect that that could weigh on things about as much as culture, wealth, and the other things you have mentioned. So, differences which are insignificant at the population level I would think could matter a bit more significantly when you begin talking about individual cases.

    1. "Those runners may have beaten one another by a few tenths of a second, but they would have beaten me by minutes."

      Come now, Scott, even Murphy can run 100 meters in under a minute!

      "Each of those people possesses a unique set of genes which has conferred statistically exceptionally rare talents. I'm pretty sure that there is a strong genetic component as far as that goes..."

      Yes, that may be so. But it has nothing to do with any "whites are smart, blacks are dumb" hypothesis.


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