Rio 2016: Looking at the Medal Count From the Bottom Up

The medal count table, like the Olympic marathon, includes a long line of nations, most of which do not contend for gold. Ricardo Moraes

Have you noticed that televised Olympic medal counts never go to the bottom of the table? Over the past fortnight, if you have followed the Rio Games, you have come upon the "medal count." You know who is atop the table ("U-S-A! U-S-A!"). But who is at the bottom?

The short answer: almost everyone. Of the 206 national contingents that marched into Maracana Stadium during the opening ceremony, 131, or nearly two-thirds, will return home without a medal. Wayde van Niekerk of South African can circle the track in less time than it would take you to name them all. Some of those countries you know well (Afghanistan, Libya, Saudi Arabia) while others sound like bands that played inside the EDM tent at Coachella: Burkina Faso, Guinea-Bissau and Vanuatu.

Whereas the United States will depart RIo with 43 gold medals. That's more gold than 179 nations who competed in the Rio Games combined. Who says we don't win anymore?

You may have seen the video of that weightlifter in the blue singlet with the word "KIRIBATI" splashed across his chest, dancing in celebration. If you are like us, though, you did not know his name (David Kotoatau), or what Kiribati is (a republic of 33 atolls located just north of the equator in the central Pacific) or that, his euphoria notwithstanding, Kotoatau failed to lift the weight above his head (he seemed not be troubled by that fact). He finished sixth.

Reality is that for most nations, the most glorious moment of the Games is the opening ceremony (particularly if you are Tonga). Most countries did not hear their anthem played during the Summer Games—one wonders if the IOC even has an MP3 file of San Marino's —but some have never had their anthem played.

There are more than 70 national Olympic committees (NOCs) that have never won an Olympic medal. The list is too numerous to mention all of them here, and even if we winnowed it down to nations that have won bronze and silver medals, there would still be three dozen-plus NOCs on the list. Is there a common denominator amongst the have-not NOCs? Not really. Some NOCs/nations are tiny, such as the republic of San Marino, whose 24,000 citizens inhabit a mountainous land that is fully encircled by Italy. San Marino sent a delegation to Rio, as did another diminutive European nation, Liechtenstein, the alpine principality that has never won a Summer medal, but has won nine Winter Olympics medals.

An overwhelming majority of the nations on the list are islands (Barbados, Iceland, Malta) or nations extremely lacking in resources (Eritrea, Haiti, Niger) or both (Madagascar). Two nations, though, do not fall into any of the above groups. They both rank in the top 45 of the planet's most populous nations and in the top 40 when it comes to gross domestic product. The first is the Philippines, which has a population of roughly 102 million, or more than six of the top 10 medal-winning countries at the Rio Games (Great Britain, Germany, France, South Korea, Australia and Italy). In Rio, Hidilyn Diaz became the first Filipino woman to win an Olympic medal, claiming silver in the 53-kg division in weightlifting. It was the Pacific archipelago nation's first medal in 20 years, the other eight of which had been won by men. The second outlier nation is one of the world's wealthiest, Saudi Arabia. In terms of an economic metric known as purchasing power parity, which measures per capita income in relation to the cost of items in a particular nation, there is only one country that is both wealthier and has a larger population than this oil-rich kingdom. That country? The United States.

The Saudis have been to 10 Summer Olympics (the Filipinos, 20) and have one silver, in men's 400-meter hurdles, and a pair of bronzes in equestrian. It sort of makes you wonder what the Saudis are doing with all those resources and all of its people. You've seen Syriana. Is falconry the only popular sport there?

At a certain point it becomes problematic, and yes, thorny, to even explore the question of the disparity in Olympic medals, particularly gold, between industrialized, geopolitically potent nations and those with similar-sized or larger populations who are not as geopolitically viable. The top trio in Rio—USA, Great Britain and China—have earned 96 gold medals this month while Brazil, India and Indonesia, three of the world's five most-populous nations, have won seven. The beauty of the Olympics is that, certain boxing judges notwithstanding, it is a meritocracy. The best athletes win regardless of what nation they represent. Usain Bolt just completed his third consecutive 100, 200 and 4x100 trifecta, rightfully earning the distinction of the greatest track athlete the Olympics have ever seen, and yet he hails from an island nation, Jamaica, that has roughly the same population as Kansas.

Certainly, tiny sovereign lands such as Liechtenstein or Fiji, the latter of which just won its first gold (in men's rugby sevens), should not be expected to get anywhere near the top 25 of nations in the medal count. Only 37 countries won more than one gold in Rio, and so no one is expecting Vatican City (no, it does not send a contingent, but wouldn't that be cool if it did?) to win a slew of medals at any Games.

However, there are a plethora of nations with sizable populations that quadrennially fail to make a dent at the Olympics. To wit, Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan and Yemen all have larger populations than Australia, a politically stable, sports-addled nation that finished ninth in the medal count at Rio with 29 medals. Those aforementioned countries with a total of one, a bronze in men's soccer for Nigeria. And so it becomes something of a chicken-and-egg conundrum. Do these nations do so poorly at the Olympics because they are ravaged by domestic strife and/or terrorist movements? Or might they be more peaceful and productive nations if they invested more in athletics for their youth?

Those are more complex question than one last-day-of-the-Games story may be able to tackle. Let's just end by paying homage to Kosovo and Vietnam, which each had their most successful Olympics ever. Both erstwhile war zones just won their respective first gold medals.