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Economic might and Olympic medals

Paul Blumstein takes a look at economic factors and Olympic success in "Winners with wallets." It's well known that larger, richer countries earn more medals. But the share of medals won by countries with the largest economies has increased in recent years. Daniel K. N. Johnson of Colorado College points to one likely factor: "new sports are introduced by and large by the rich nations. We're not playing indigenous African games. We introduce things like trampoline, and curling."

Like Johnson, I enjoy seeing athletes from small countries succeed. Here's Blumstein's list of the little countries that could - those with the most medals from Athens per $100B of GDP.

Eritrea - 136

Georgia - 102

Ethiopia - 90

Mongolia - 84

Azerbaijan - 70

Eritrea has only one medal thus far, and Georgia four, so clearly the list is subject to change. Here's more from Blumstein:

Other nations punching above their economic weight include Belarus, Bulgaria, Jamaica, Cuba, Russia and Australia. The United States, by contrast, is near the bottom among the 73 countries that have won at least one medal, with only about 0.83 medals per $100 billion of GDP. China's ratio is around 4, in the middle of the pack.

Other big losers? Oh, Canada: With $834 billion in GDP, the country has managed just nine medals, so its ratio is almost as disappointing as its giant neighbor to the south. India may be the biggest underachiever of all; despite a fast-growing economy and a billion people, the country has so far managed only a silver in double trap shooting.

Culture clearly has much to do with this, in addition to the economy. China is riding a wave of economic and cultural change - with intent - to become an Olympic superpower. This story by Frank Fitzpatrick got my attention.

The week before the 2004 Games opened here, 1,200 sports scientists gathered for a conference in northern Greece. Three hundred of them were Chinese.

"I was told the Chinese were everywhere at the conference, running around, soaking it all up," said Jim Page, the USOC's managing director of sports performance. "They are incredibly determined, and they are putting all their resources into succeeding at the 2008 Games in Beijing."

China's longstanding enmity with Taiwan caused the mainland to boycott every Olympics from 1952 to 1980. But since the Communist nation returned in 1984, its medal count has climbed steadily - menacingly, if you are the traditional Olympic powers, the United States, Russia and Germany.

In 1996 at Atlanta, China was fourth overall in the medal standings with 16 golds and 50 overall. Four years later, at Sydney, those totals were 28 and 59, as the Chinese passed Germany and finished third.

The Chinese have backed up Sydney with superb performances in Athens. So get ready for a serious challenge to US supremacy in 2008. As Darryl Seibel, the USOC's chief communications officer puts it, "The sports machine they are building will be the greatest the world has ever seen."