Team USA beaten by Jamaica, New Zealand and Iran

According to New Zealand study, U.S. came only 10th in medal count in London 2012

By Nicholas Nehamas

Ethiopia’s Meseret Defar celebrates after winning the women’s 5000m final during the London 2012 Olympic Games. (Reuters)

It’s the first weekend in August without the Olympics and, if you’re American, you’re probably resting on your laurels, feet up on the couch.

Don’t get too comfortable.

The U.S. Olympic team didn’t do as well in London as we all assumed, according to a new study by a professor from New Zealand.

Sure, America won the most medals this year, reclaiming the top spot from the Chinese, who were the best performers at the 2008 Games in Beijing.

But Professor Emeritus David Coy of the University of Waikato School of Management argues that countries like Ethiopia, Jamaica, Hungary, Iran and, yes, his native New Zealand were the tournament’s real standouts.

It’s no surprise when big, wealthy nations do well at the Olympics, he tells Latitude News. After all, they have the money (whether government backing or private funding, as in the case of the U.S.) and the population to find and train elite athletes and send them all around the world to compete. That’s why the top four medal-getters in London were the United States (530 athletes), China (380), Russia (436) and Great Britain (541).

In the Olympics, Professor Coy says, “Everything changes but everything stays the same. There’s a small group of powerhouse nations who dominate every four years. And that domination is driven by economic power and size of population.”

“But the small countries do very well,” he argues, “when you take those factors into account. A country like Ethiopia has long distance runners who do very, very well, so they create pockets of excellence in which they can be disproportionately successful.”

Ethiopia sent only 36 athletes to the games, most of them in track-and-field, and the African nation has a per capita GDP of just $374.20. And yet the Ethiopians managed to secure seven medals in London, giving them 21 “medal points” in Professor Coyle’s calculations (5 for a gold, 3 for a silver, 1 for a bronze).

That put Ethiopia first on a table comparing medal performance with GDP per capita. The United States (GDP per capita of $48,441) finished tenth on Coy’s list—behind much poorer countries like Kenya, Ukraine, North Korea, Uganda, Iran and Cuba.

And when Professor Coy compared medal performance with population, he found Jamaica (2.9 million), New Zealand (4.3 million), Hungary (10 million) and a whole host of other nations outperformed the U.S. (313.8 million), which finished 40th overall.

He says his study, “Olympic Medals in Perspective,” was meant to give a sense of context to the games: “In New Zealand and in many other countries, too, I suspect, we focus on the success of our own countries, and we get very inward looking.”

Coy was especially proud of New Zealand’s strong performance at the games—four more medals in London than in Beijing—which he says was “won largely on the backs of our rowers. We have a long tradition of rowing, and devote plenty of resources to it.”

But he also argued that excelling at one particular sport can be a double-edged sword. “Because of limited resources countries have a given budget to put towards sport, so for the next Olympics they’ll put more money into sports that did well in London and take money away from those that were disappointing. The net effect will be more specialization among the nations, and I suspect that will lead to less competition in Rio.”

Coy’s research also led him to another surprising conclusion. If the Soviet Union were around today, it might be the world’s dominant athletic power. Russia and the former Soviet republics took home 158 medals from the London Olympics, well ahead of the U.S. (104) and China (88). “Ronald Reagan will be turning over in his grave,” says Coy.