Which Country (and Continent) Dominates Each Olympic Sport? (Updated)

It’s all Olympics, all the time this week at The Pietist Schoolman! In case you want to bone up before Rio 2016 gets going in earnest, I thought I’d update my 2012 response to this question:

Which countries (and continents) are most dominant in each summer Olympic sport?

(And yes, there’s a winter version.)

I’ve got other things on my plate, so again, I limited myself to the games of the current century — but this time folded in the results for London. I again gave three points for each gold, two for silver, and one for bronze, then computed the percentage of available “medal-points” won. As before, I rounded the percentages in case I missed a medal or two here or there. (And I think I corrected some mistakes in my overly complicated spreadsheet that resulted from some countries winning their first medals in 2008 and then 2012: congratulations to Bahrain, Cyprus, Gabon, Guatemala, and Montenegro!)

Here’s the updated list, starting with all sports in which 30% or more of the medal-points went to one country:

Sport Dominant Country Next Closest
Table Tennis China (67%) South Korea (11%)
Badminton China (55%) Indonesia (15%), South Korea (14%)
Diving China (52%) Russia (15%), Australia (9%)
Archery South Korea (46%) China (12%), Italy (10%)
Basketball USA (46%) Australia (15%), Argentina, France & Spain (8%)
Baseball & Softball USA (33%) Japan and Cuba (19%), Australia (17%)
Field Hockey Netherlands (33%) Germany (21%), Australia (19%)
Swimming USA (32%) Australia (15%), Japan and Netherlands (6%)
Volleyball Brazil (31%) USA (26%), Russia (12%)
Korean women's archery team in London
The South Korean women’s team took one of that nation’s three gold medals in archery at London – Creative Commons (Korean Culture and Information Service)

This table hasn’t changed a whole lot in four years. Of course, that shouldn’t be surprising in the case of baseball and softball, which weren’t played in London, won’t be contested this month in Rio, and don’t return until 2020 Tokyo. And frankly, it’s not hard to see why most of the world doesn’t care: since 2000, only five countries have medaled in those sports. But while the US has done best, each of the other four (Japan, Cuba, Australia, and South Korea) has won at least 10% of the points.

Compare that to what’s clearly the least competitive competition in the Summer Olympics: table tennis. Not only has China won two-thirds of the points available here, but if you go back to the start of the event in 1988 Seoul, China has won 24 of 28 gold medals. Ten other countries have medaled in the sport, but South Korea is the only other to earn more than 5% of the points since 2000 (including one gold medal, in 2004).

And that’s quite striking. I think I’ve stumbled across a Rule of Five here: While most sports have had anywhere from 10 to 30 nations medal, as a rule only 5 countries (±1) win ≥5% points. Table tennis is the only exception to that rule where there are far fewer competitive countries.

Sport Dominant Country Next Closest
Equestrian Germany (26%) Netherlands (17%), Great Britain (15%)
Weightlifting China (24%) Russia (11%), South Korea and Kazakhstan (6%)
Tennis USA (23%) Russia (14%), Chile (9%)
Soccer USA (23%) Brazil (15%), Argentina (13%)
Fencing Italy (23%) France (15%), Russia (11%)
Gymnastics Russia (21%) China (20%), USA (12%)
Water Polo USA (21%) Hungary (19%), Italy, Australia & Serbia (11%)
Wrestling Russia (21%) Japan and USA (9%), Azerbaijan (6%)

Here we’re getting into sports where it’s harder to say that any country is really “dominant.” Indeed, half the entries on this list break my “rule of five.” Soccer and water polo are rare team sports whose tournaments aren’t dominated by only four or five countries; seven for soccer and eight for water polo have won at least 5% of the medal-points in my system. [UPDATE: I’ve corrected an error in calculating the wrestling shares.]

Now, the sports where the fields are consistently wide open:

Sport Dominant Country Next Closest
Judo Japan (19%) Cuba (9%), France and China (8%)
Triathlon Australia (19%) Switzerland (17%), New Zealand (13%)
Cycling Great Britain (19%) France, Germany, Australia (11%)
Sailing Great Britain (19%) Australia (10%), Spain and USA (7%)
Modern Pentathlon Great Britain and Russia (19%) Lithuania (17%), Hungary (13%)
Canoeing Germany (18%) Hungary (14%), Slovakia (7%)
Shooting China (18%) Russia (10%), USA (9%)
Athletics USA (17%) Russia (12%), Kenya and Jamaica (7%)
Taekwando South Korea (17%) China (9%), USA (7%)
Boxing Cuba (17%) Russia (13%), Kazakhstan (8%)
Team Handball Norway (15%) Russia, France & Denmark (13%)
Rowing Great Britain (14%) Germany and Australia (9%)

Obviously, most of the sports land here because they’re huge competitions. With so many different medals available, it would be hard for any single country to win even a fifth of the medal-points in sports like boxing, canoeing, and shooting. (In athletics, nearly seventy countries have medaled in at least one of the last three Summer Olympics.) But there are three exceptions, each of which awards only two sets of medals each games but is interesting for different reasons:

Canadian fan at 2012 Olympic triathlon
Canadian fan at the 2012 triathlon – Creative Commons (UK Department for Culture, Media, and Sport)

• First, triathlon. Not only is this the one sport in which Australia tops its field (it debuted at the Sydney games), but triathlon is the only Olympic competition in which Switzerland, New Zealand, and Canada place in the top five. Germany, Austria, and Great Britain also clear the 5% threshold here.

• Second, team handball: while hough Norway, on the women’s side, and France, on the men’s, are aiming to take their third straight gold medals, handball is the only team sport in which no country has earned more than 15% of the points. Eight different countries are in the 5-15% range. All of them are European…

• …which is also a theme in modern pentathlon. Twelve countries have medaled in the Olympics’ test of the ideal 19th century soldier; only three (Brazil, China, and USA) are not in Europe. One of the five sports included in that pentathlon is fencing; when that sport is contested by itself, five of the seven countries earning 5% or more of the points are European (China and USA, again, are exceptions).

And that suggests one more question…

Which continents dominate which sports?

• The Americas take more than half the points in several team sports: soccer (65%),volleyball (62%), basketball (56%), and baseball & softball (53%). The USA is responsible for most of that success, though Cuba (in boxing, wrestling, and judo), Jamaica (in athletics), and Mexico (in diving and soccer) are serious competitors in selected sports. Collectively, South America takes 10% or more points in only three sports: field hockey, soccer, and tennis.

• Asia (plus Oceania) utterly dominates table tennis (92%) and badminton (90%), and also leads archery (70%), diving (62%), weightlifting (59%), and taekwando (50%). Interestingly, judo is one of the few sports (boxing is another) in which no continent has a majority of the points: led by Japan, Asia takes 45%, but Europe (38%) isn’t far behind. (And Western Hemisphere countries like Cuba and Brazil are also competitive.)

• Africa does not lead in any sport, doing best in athletics (19% — thanks mostly to long-distance runners from East and North Africa) and soccer (10% — Cameroon and Nigeria have medaled recently).

Men's team foil fencing in London
The men’s team foil competition in London – Creative Commons (Steve Fair)

• Then Europe leads the way in 14 sports: team handball (94%), modern pentathlon (90%), canoeing (85%), fencing (77%), equestrian (72%), rowing (71%), cycling (71%), water polo (68%), sailing (65%), field hockey (60%), tennis (57%), shooting (56%), triathlon (56%), and gymnastics (55%).

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

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

  1. I am glad to see that the US is dominate in Tennis but I feel like we could do better. I have played tennis since I was little. I was always disappointed in the tennis facilities at most colleges. I was so excited to hear that Mark Hurd f is working hard to revitalize tennis at the collegiate level but he is also trying to improve American tennis overall. He has plans to sponsor collegiate tournaments, create a new American tennis circuit, and possibly start a junior academy in California. I think that Mark Hurd is really going to turn this sport around.

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