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Winning An Olympic Gold Medal Hasn’t Been This Difficult Since 1896

Global Olympic gold medals per capita are at their lowest point since the first modern Olympics in 1896.

There are 306 events at the Olympics this summer, with one gold medal per event.1 There are more than 7.3 billion people worldwide. That’s fewer than 42 events for every billion people, and that ratio has been declining since the 2000 Sydney Games, when the Olympics grew to 300 events, up 11 percent from 1996 and 48 percent higher than in 1980.

In 2002, an International Olympic Committee report warned that the games were growing too big. “Today, the Olympic Movement must contend with the reality that more sports want to participate in the Olympic Games, more athletes want to compete in the Olympic Games, more people want to attend the Olympic Games, and more media want to cover the Olympic Games,” the report said. As a result, the cost of hosting the games was increasing and some countries were being left out of the running in bids to serve as host, according to the report.

The IOC has heeded the report’s warning and pressed pause on the Summer Olympics’ rapid growth rate.2

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Though events per capita were much higher in the first half of the 20th century, everything that surrounded those events has grown, including the number of security forces and members of the media. Also, many more athletes today compete per event, from far more countries, than did then. The number of events has not quite doubled since 1920, but the number of participating athletes is roughly four times higher today and the number of participating countries is about seven times higher.3

The decrease in events per capita has meant more athletes are competing for a chance to win roughly the same number of medals. It also has meant that sports not yet in the Olympics have had a hard time breaking into the games, and when they have, it has usually come at the expense of others, such as baseball and softball. That will change in Tokyo, though, as yet another new Olympic philosophy on growth will bring five new sports into the fold.

Footnotes

  1. Though an extra gold or two could result from ties. Also, more than one athlete can share a medal in team and relay events, so the number of athletes earning medals is greater than the number of medals in the country-by-country medal table.

  2. The number of events in the Winter Olympics hasn’t stopped growing, in part because those games are so much smaller than the Summer Games. Population numbers for the per capita numbers in the text and chart are from the U.S. Census Bureau, which has annual estimates since 1950. For Olympics before 1950, I used United Nations 1999 estimates compiled by the Census Bureau for global population in 1850, 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930, 1940 and 1950, interpolating for Olympic years for which an estimate wasn’t available by assuming linear growth between estimated years.

  3. Media reports put the number of athletes this summer at somewhere between 10,500 and more than 11,000, and the number of countries at 206 or 207; the organizing committee’s media office didn’t respond to a request for a count.

Carl Bialik was FiveThirtyEight’s lead writer for news.

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