If the EU were an Olympic member

As a Brit it’s been good to see Team GB achieve so much success in the London 2012 Olympic games. Beijing was a great games for Team GB and the idea that there would be as many medals seemed to me to be optimistic. In the end my doubts were unfounded and Team GB achieved 3rd in the medal table after the USA and China.

Of course a smallish nation like the UK (population ~66m) is unlikely to challenge either the US (360m) or China (1350m) because the depth of talent in any discipline is not so great. Even so, comparing medals per capita gives Team GB something to cheer. The medal count across countries can be normalized by dividing the population by the number of gold medals. This gives the UK a score of 2.28 and the US 7.83. That is, there was a Team GB gold for every 2.28m people while there was a US gold for every 7.83m people. So well done Team GB.

EU performance

While the UK is a smallish nation the EU, if it were a single IOC entity, is not. With 28 member states there are ~650m people. Totaling the gold medals across all the EU member states is an impressive 97 beating both the USA (46) and China (38). A normalized score gives 6.70. That is, a gold medal for every 6.7m people. Nearly 1/3 of all gold medals went to EU state citizens. And 1/3 of all silvers and bronzes. Pretty impressive.

I do understand this is taking a liberty. There are many more competitors from the EU than from the USA or China. However its reasonable to assume that the best in the world is the best in the world. Having the US or China enter more competitors may have some impact. A US citizen who did not make the team may have had a great day during the Olympics and surprised everyone. But it seems unlikely this would be a pattern that would repeat to such an extent that it altered the results in a very significant way.

Region Gold Silver Bronze All
EU 97 107 111 315
United States 46 29 29 104
China 38 27 22 87

If nothing else it does a lot to dispel the popular myth that the ‘old countries’ are decrepit and full of pensioners. For sure the average age within the EU is higher than in the US. But the EU is none-the-less a vibrant region.

The Olympics is a rich country’s activity

Between the games in Beijing and those in London the UK spent £1bn ($1.6bn) on fostering it’s elite athletes. That’s £250m/year over 4 years, half funded by the exchequer (tax payer) and half by proceeds from the National Lottery. That’s a lot of cash. It amounts to ~£33m/gold. This is not chump change and is money that has been consistently available for nearly 20 years. It goes a long way to explain the improvements in the performance of Team GB in recent Olympic games.

Sitting down sports

One Australian wag once observed that British athletes seem to prefer sitting down sports (Canoeing, Cycling, Rowing, Horse riding and Sailing). Based on performances in London this observation seems valid. Apart from some creditable performances in boxing, taekowndo and, of course, Mo Farrah’s double in the athletics stadium the bulk of Team GB gold medals came while sitting down.

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