Which Country (and Continent) Dominates Each Olympic Sport?

8/5/16: If you came to this post, you might want to see this morning’s update, which folds in the results from 2012 London and corrects a couple of spreadsheet errors.

It’s a good thing the Olympics are wrapping up this week. If they continued much longer, I wouldn’t get any pre-semester work done!

Not just because I’m watching so much of NBC’s Olympic coverage that I’m worried that I’ll grade my students like Tim Daggett evaluates gymnastics: “Oh, that’s disastrous! A full point off!!” But because it keeps raising questions that I really shouldn’t take the time to answer…

Like this one that occurred to me while watching Jamaicans win two more 100m dashes over the weekend: Which countries are most dominant in each sport?

Table Tennis at the 2012 Olympics
The table tennis competition at the London Olympics – Creative Commons (urbanora)

Even to a casual observer, it seems obvious that Chinese athletes dominate several sports that most Americans tend to view as best left in basements and backyards: ping pong, badminton, diving… But is that actually true? And what about other sports that don’t seem quite so dominated by a single nation’s athletes? (And not just gold medals, but silver and bronze as well.)

Now, even an academic like myself only has so much time to waste in August, so I limited myself: no Winter sports, and only completed Summer Olympics from the current century. So here’s the list: which countries have done the best in each sport in the 2000, 2004, and 2008 Summer Olympics? (I gave three points for each gold, two for silver, and one for bronze, then computed the percentage of available “medal-points” won. I’m sure I missed a few here or there, so I rounded the percentages rather than going to tenths or thousandths…)

We’ll start with sports in which the majority of points went to one country:

Sport

Dominant Country

Percentage of Points

Table Tennis

China

68%

Diving

China

51%

Badminton

China

51%

So far so unsurprising. Now for sports in which countries other than China lap the field, though the dominance isn’t quite so marked:

Sport

Dominant Country

Percentage of Points

Archery

South Korea

47%

Basketball

USA

44%

Baseball & Softball

USA

33%

Swimming

USA

31%

Field Hockey

The Netherlands

31%

Volleyball

Brazil

31%

Of these, American preeminence in swimming seems most impressive (Australia comes second in the sport, at 17%), simply because there are so many more swimming medals to be won than in the other sports on this list (nearly nine times as many as in archery, the next highest). And the American share would be even greater if I hadn’t lumped in synchronized with the races, since the USA had earned only three bronze medals in that sport in Summer Olympics of the 2000s coming into London.(And Sports Illustrated doesn’t project the Americans to win any more this year.)

Now to sports in which the highest-achieving country (“dominant” no longer seems like the right adjective) has earned 20-29% of my “medal-points”:

Sport

Dominant Country

Percentage of Points

Equestrian

Germany

26%

Water Polo

Hungary

26%

Modern Pentathlon

Russia

25%

Weightlifting

China

25%

Wrestling

Russia

22%

Judo

Japan

21%

Fencing

Italy

21%

Taekwondo

South Korea

20%

Gymnastics

Russia

20%

It’s not surprising that these sports are more balanced, with most awarding more than two dozen medals per games. And even the two team sports here that offer only two golds (one for women, one for men) each Olympiad are fairly competitive: in modern pentathlon, the Russians have to compete with the British (19%), Hungarians (13%), and Lithuanians (13%); in water polo, Hungary has to reckon with the USA (20%), Australia (11%), and Serbia (11%).

And then the other, most highly competitive sports:

Sport

Dominant Country

Percentage of Points

Boxing

Cuba

19%

Sailing

Great Britain

19%

Shooting

China

19%

Canoeing/Kayaking

Germany

19%

Tennis

USA

18%

Team Handball

Denmark, Russia

17%

Track and Field

USA

16%

Cycling

Great Britain

15%

Triathlon

Canada, Germany, Switzerland

14%

Rowing

Great Britain

11%

Track and field is, of course, the biggest meet at the Summer Olympics, with medals awarded in over forty separate competitions each games. So the USA winning one-sixth of the available points is impressive, all the more so since Russia is the only other country to earn more than 10% of the points in what the Olympics calls “Athletics” (12% for the Russians). Kenya (7%), Ethiopia (6%), and Jamaica (6%) fill out the top five, with the two East African countries dominating distance races and the Jamaicans starring in sprints.

Kenya and Ethiopia’s achievements in track are rare examples of African dominance. The only other countries from that continent to garner even 5% of available points in any sport are Cameroon and Nigeria, both in soccer (8% and 6%, respectively).

And that suggests one more question… Which continents dominate which sports?

Continent

Sports in which it dominates

Africa

None

Americas

Baseball & Softball (53%), Basketball (58%), Soccer (61%), Volleyball (61%)

Asia & Oceania

Archery (71%), Badminton (91%), Diving (63%), Judo (50%),  Table Tennis (92%), Taekwondo (55%), Weightlifting (56%)

Europe

Athletics (44%), Boxing (40%), Canoeing & Kayaking (85%), Cycling (74%), Equestrian (65%), Fencing (79%), Field Hockey (56%), Gymnastics (58%), Handball (92%), Modern Pentathlon (94%), Rowing (75%), Sailing (64%), Shooting (58%), Swimming (36%), Tennis (54%), Triathlon (44%), Water Polo (69%), Wrestling (42%)

(I’m following the UN’s definition of world regions, so Russia goes with Europe rather than Asia.)

Swimming comes off as the most geographically balanced competition, with Europe just edging the Americas (33%, though that’s almost all USA) and Asia (26%, though that’s only that high because I’m including Australia). Even Africa gets nearly 5% of the points in swimming (thanks mostly to the most famous athlete from Zimbabwe), which is that continent’s third highest share (track and field, 19%; soccer, 14%).

Baseball logo from the 2008 Olympics in Beijing
http://www.athomeplate.com (Creative Commons)

Looking at that chart, it’s hard for this Minnesota Twins fan not to view the IOC’s decision to take baseball off the London schedule with anything but cynicism. It’s hard to know exactly why baseball and softball were voted out in 2008, since the ballot is secret, and IOC members aren’t expected to explain their votes. In addition to the non-participation of major league baseball players, the dominance of the sport by a relative handful of nations (the USA, Cuba, Japan, Australia, and South Korea won all medals in those sports from 2000-2008) is usually suggested as a reason. But knowing that the IOC’s president, two of its four vice-presidents, and four of the nine other members of its executive board come from Europe, it seems fair to point out that Europeans have won more than the Americans/Cubans’ share of baseball/softball points in thirteen sports, with modern pentathlon and team handball seeming especially uncompetitive from an intercontinental point of view.


4 thoughts on “Which Country (and Continent) Dominates Each Olympic Sport?

  1. Interesting look, Chris. Since I only watch in the evenings, sports like archery are missed, so it’s intriguing to see these award break-downs for lesser known events. Your baseball love is clearly miffed in the last paragraph! 🙂

  2. these results get terribly skewed for some events. For example, the United States basketball % would be higher, but unlike in most events, a country can only get one of the medals, and not 1+

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