As India’s pride and self-respect grew with its rising status as an economic power and it became the biggest market in the world for many high-end products, the country started putting more money into sport and its infrastructure grew phenomenally.

Six medals in London and four in Rio is a big leap for India in the Olympics, but India finished overall at the shameful rank of sixty-seven in Rio 2016. For a big economy it was a pedestrian performance.

But India had just turned the corner about a decade before and it takes time to convert oneself into a sporting power. India now has private and focused programmes like the private Quest for Gold and the government’s funding programme, the Target Olympic Podium Scheme, but the terribly mismanaged sports federations have made the sport situation impossible. However, India satisfies its nationalistic urges by being a cricketing power, a game which only ten countries play.

I studied the medal tallies from the 1960 Rome Olympics onwards to substantiate my conclusion that wealth and Olympics superiority is closely linked. There are a few exceptions, of course.

But first, a look at the Rio Olympics, 2016. No backward country, no African or Asian nation and no underperforming economy figured prominently in the top fifteen of the Rio medal list. Have a look at the five top medal-winners (gold, silver and bronze) as of 17 August 2016.

Country Medals 

28, 28, 28

Great Britain 


China 17, 15,19
Germany  11, 8, 7
Italy  8, 9, 8

The top five medal tally at the end of the Rio Olympics was:

Country  Medals 

38, 35, 32

Great Britain 

24, 22,14


22,18, 25


14, 8, 13


13, 16, 19

The final top five tally showed that all were economically advanced nations, which means that the medal tally almost corresponds to ranking in terms of wealth or gross domestic product (GDP).


46, 37, 38 = 121


27, 23, 17 = 67

China 26, 18, 26 = 70
Russia  19,17, 20 = 56

17,10,15 = 42

The other wealthy nations were close behind:

  1. Japan 12821 = 41
  2. France 101814 = 42
  3. S Korea 939 = 21
  4. Italy 8128 = 28
  5. Australia 81110 = 29

Here then, is the line-up of the world’s powerful sporting nations. This has been the line-up for most of the Olympics since 1960. These nations also form the so-called First World: advanced countries, with huge per capita incomes, though in some cases, small in size. These are the ten countries which have hosted the Olympics, some of them twice over.

In ranking, the Third World countries follow. Canada, though a wealthy nation finished twentieth with only four golds. Among the small and poor nations, only Jamaica and Kenya (six golds each) are in the top twenty. These two countries dominate the track events due mostly to individual brilliance.

The US crossed a total tally of 100 medals, a nation far superior to others as a sporting nation, a country which dominates in all fields.

In the 1968 Olympics, Russia had fifty golds, the US thirty-three, East Germany twenty, West Germany thirteen and Japan came fifth with thirteen golds. By 2000, in the Olympics held at Sydney, the US won thirtyseven golds and was followed by Russia (thirty-two) and China (twenty-eight). Australia, the host nation, came fourth with sixteen golds and Great Britain was tenth with eleven. In all the post-colonial Olympics starting from 1960, the top ten have been same, only changing positions a bit here and there. China has been the outlier country.

Since 1980 or so, however, China went on a drastic and phenomenal development path which shocked a disbelieving world. By the Beijing Olympics of 2008, China was top of the tally.

To look at China’s rise as a sporting nation is also to look at the nation’s rise as an economic power. In the 1960 Olympics, China performed like India, finishing with just one silver. In 1968, nothing had changed. By the 2000 Sydney Olympics, China had touched twenty-eight gold medals and in Beijing with the obvious advantages of being the host nation, China got fifty-one gold medals and pushed the US for the first time in forty years to the second place. By the turn of the century, China had become a economic superpower. China’s GDP in 2006 was only $ 2.6 trillion (India is at $2.6 trillion in 2019) and by 2016 had touched an unimaginable $9.4 trillion. Its growth as a sporting nation has not been paralleled.

It might also surprise us that two of the most wellknown sporting nations we admire, mostly due to its soccer stars — Brazil and Argentina — are Olympic laggards as well. There is no game in which Argentina, for instance, does not excel, including football, tennis, volleyball, basketball. In Rio it had super teams in soccer, volleyball, basketball, tennis, beach volleyball, both in men and women teams, and most reached the semi-finals. Brazil had the same achievement.

Unlike India, both are sporting nations that produced legends whom we all admire and follow — but what was Argentina’s medal standing? It was ranked at the twenty-seventh spot, while with a medal tally of three, one and zero, Brazil — despite being host nation — finished thirteenth with a mediocre tally of seven, six and six. The reason is that both these developing countries which excel in many team games are laggards in individual athletic and swimming events (maximum medals) and do not match up with the top nations in sports technology, infrastructure and management. In other words, they are not rich nations.

Let us look at another advanced economy and an underpopulated country. Australia got twenty-nine medals in Rio (eight golds) but slumped from its Athens tally of seventy gold medals to the tenth position. In Athens and the earlier Sydney Olympics, Australia was in the fourth position.

Nicole Jeffery writing in The Weekend Australian, 21 January 2018, attributed this to a lack of spending on sports in the article with a hyped-up heading, ‘Death of a Dream’. This, despite the fact that Australia for a long time has been among the top ten.

Australia is a sport-obsessed nation, which spends most of its time outdoors and so has been spending large amounts to be among the top three in all sport. Such an obsession has not gripped emerging nations yet, all of them making just casual allocations with no definite plan.

Excerpted with permission from ‘Top Game’ by Binoo K John.