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Measuring Olympic success


A gold medal from the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. New Zealand swimmer Danyon Loader's two golds helped lift New Zealand to the top of the per capita medal table at that year's Games.

Medals count

The Olympic Creed states that 'the most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part'. Yet during every Games, tables of national medal totals are updated daily. At the first modern games, in Athens in 1896, the United States announced its sporting ascendancy over the Old World by winning the most events (11). Host nation Greece fielded most of the competitors and won the most medals overall (46).

When the games returned to Athens in 2004, the US topped both counts, with 35 golds among 103 medals. The silver and bronze positions were occupied by two large countries which apply substantial resources to achieving sporting success, Russia and China. States formerly part of the Soviet Union won 157 medals between them, reflecting the long shadow cast by the Soviets' use of sport during the Cold War.

Did you know?

Excluding the 1980 Olympics (when we were part of a US-led boycott), New Zealand has failed to win a medal at only one Olympic Games since we started participating a century ago – London in 1948.

Other countries use different yardsticks. Australians' self-image as battlers punching above their Olympic weight began in 1896, when their only athlete won two events. In 2004 the Australian Bureau of Statistics elevated the Lucky Country to third place on a per capita basis (they were already an impressive fourth by the usual measures). Others can play at this game: thanks to Danyon Loader and Blyth Tait (and his horse Ready Teddy), New Zealand topped the golds per capita rankings at Atlanta in 1996.

Before recent Games, teams of economists have competed to predict the outcome of the medals race. Factors taken into account include population, GDP per capita, past performance, climate and the boost from being the host nation. By these measures, New Zealand has underperformed at recent Olympics. The University of Colorado predicted our three golds at Athens, but we won just five medals overall, not 11.

The same economists expected New Zealand to win 12 medals at Beijing, two of them gold. This seems to be slightly above the government sports agency SPARC's expected tally (although it did not make any public predictions). Sports journalist Joseph Romanos thought seven or eight medals were likely. Newspapers and magazines such as USA Today and Sports Illustrated also publicise their predictions for every event just before the games begin. Sports Illustrated predicted that New Zealand would win 12 medals in Beijing, including three rowing golds.

As it turned out, New Zealand won nine medals in Beijing, including three golds – fewer that some predicted, but still this country's best medal haul since Barcelona in 1992.

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Measuring Olympic success, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated