Olympic Efficiency – who did best?

Team US won most Olympic medals in 2021; a stellar result overall.
– But was this effort efficient?

In the worlds of business, efficiency is the ability to producing the desired result with the minimum effort necessary, i.e., without waste.
Translated to the Olympics, the participating nations send their resources (athletes) to win maximum reward (Olympic medals) for national prestige.

Who is most efficient?

The media and public often remain focused on the maximum effectiveness in the form of the medal statistics, i.e., the number of medals gained by each country. But this only tells part of the story. An interesting question is this: which nation is winning medals most efficiently with the least amount of waste?

It is difficult if not impossible to calculate the genuine cost of each athlete as a resource that would include ‑ among other costs‑ the national resources spent, the various sports and disciplines’ requirements, training facilities and staff, research and development support, the commercial support, specialty equipment and advertisement contracts for each athlete, etc.
Instead, let us look at two basic determining factors: the number of athletes and the number of medals they won in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics:

Athletes per medal metrics

The powerhouse nations dominated the news and the turf with copious amounts of athletes competing in most sports and disciplines the Olympics have to offer – and reaping most medals.

Certainly this ‘brute-force’ approach is effective to collect medals: Overall, the USA showed up with the most athletes (657) and collected the most gold (39), silver (41), and bronze (33) medals – an all-around win, so it seems. On average, it took 5.8 athletes on Team US to win one medal and 16.8 U.S. athletes to win one most prestigious gold medal. It certainly is a stellar result overall.
But was this effort efficient?

Look at runner-up China: The 406 Chinese athletes (=37% less athletes than the USA) collected 38 gold medals (just one less than the USA) and 88 medals overall (just 22% less than the USA). Therefore, significantly less resources got China a disproportionate higher number of medals than the USA. The Chinese team got a medal for every 4.6 athletes (same as for the Russian ROC team, which brought even less, 330, athletes to the Olympics) or a gold medal for every 10.7 athletes.

Who are the hidden efficiency champions?

Often, the smaller countries remain in the shadows – unless they have a globally renowned athlete or team to highlight, like Jamaica’s famous ‘Bolt’ sprinter. Speaking off, the 48 athletes from this island with a population of 2.9 million won 9 medals of which 4 were gold (44% gold compared to the USA’s 29% ratio). Thus, Jamaica appears more efficient with ‘investing’ only 12 athletes per medal or 5.3 athletes per gold medal.

One of my ‘hidden champions’ though is the republic of San Marino – if you are unfamiliar with it, it’s a tiny landlocked nation with a population of 34,000 near the city of Rimini and entirely surrounded by Italy. Though not wining gold, their 5 athletes earned 3 medals which translates to only 1.7 athletes per medal – a fantastic score and far more efficient result than China, ROC, or the USA!

Also, with one medal for (roughly) every 11,000 citizens, San Marino easily surpasses China where over 16 million people ‘share’ a medal and the over 8 million people-per-medal in the USA and still around 2 million in host country Japan as well as Russia.

So, with focus on efficiency, the maximum reward output for a minimum of resources input, the smaller nations can well have a leg up over the super-powers in the Olympic race!

Back to business

In business it is the startups and small businesses focusing on a niche where they beat the established, large corporations. With success and growth, these emerging players can, too, become a the large ‘blue chip’ company overtime.

However, businesses play in many more arenas than sports and do not necessarily remain restricted by national limitations such as a population to choose athletes from. Thus, smaller countries cannot as easily produce or sponsor athletes in all Olympic disciplines. Their path to continued growth, i.e., to win more medals, is not as open for the smaller countries and their Olympic medal ambitions as it is for more resourceful nations.

In a way this make the achievements of nations even more meaningful and laudable. And, who knows, perhaps we will be surprised again in future Olympics.

P.S. – Kudos to all athletes who participated in the Olympics, congratulations to all medal winners, and all the best for the participants in the upcoming Paralympics!


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