Rio 2016, this year’s Summer Olympic Games are about to start. Following the suspension of a large number of Athletes from the Russian team, 11239 athletes are participating in the event, competing for 306 sets of medals. The following map gives an overview of where participants at this year’s event are from, still proving the overall picture of previous games with the wealthy parts of the world dominating the picture, but this year also with a larger number of athletes from South America and especially from Brazil as the host nation. Brazil as the host nations did not have to go through all qualifying rounds and received automatic entry in some disciplines. Also shown in this image is the all-time medal count from all modern Summer Olympics (1896 to 2012) as proportional circles on top of each country:
I have shown a similar map of the all-time medals previously (see here). Since countries have changed in the history of the modern games, some adjustments to the data were necessary to reflect today’s territorial borders. The main aim in the adjustment was to include as many of all medals as possible, while retaining our understanding of the world as we see it today. The main redistribution of medals for countries that no longer exist therefore followed two strategies: Where a country that does not exist anymore has a successor, the data for that country were merged with today’s successor of this country (such as the German Democratic Republic which was merged with the data for Germany, or – slightly more disputable – the data for Soviet Union being assigned to Russia). In other cases, the medals for a no-longer existing country were redistributed over all succeeding countries in equal parts, such as the medals for Czechoslovakia which were counted in equal parts for today’s Czech Republic and Slovakia. Only those medals not being clearly associated with a country (either of today or of the past) were left out in this map (such as of the Mixed Teams of the early days).
The distribution of medals shows the existing Olympic inequalities: The overall patterns are a reflection of wealth distribution in the world, raising the question whether money can buy sporting success. Besides investment in sports by those countries who can afford it, the medal tables also reflect a battle for global supremacy in political terms. The heyday of the Cold War still leaves a lasting legacy in the all-time medal map where “the relative power of the United States and the Soviet Union were regularly measured in gold, silver and bronze”, perhaps explaining some of the recent scandal over Russia’s doping policies. In more recent Olympic history, a new power is emerging on the world stage, with the battle for the top spot in the medal table now being fought between the USA and China. The Olympics are about much more than only sports: They tell us a lot about our changing economic and political world.