When the 2012 Summer Olympic Games conclude, one nation will have performed better than all others. At press time, the U.S. and China are neck-and-neck in the medal count race, with well over 50 medals each. This begs the question, when you look at the history of the Summer Games; which nation has performed the best on the Olympic stage in the modern era?
This is a list that is sure to draw some fire. Nevertheless, the numbers tell the tale. Of course, everyone is passionate about their own country, with each and every nation that has participated in the Olympics offering its own bit of specialness to the overall tapestry of the event. Honestly, this is what really makes the Olympics such a special event unlike any other. One national team may indeed earn bragging rights by racking in the most medals but, at the end of the day, it’s not so much about medal counts and victories, but the spirit of brotherhood that manifests through this type of international competition.
That being said, there can only be one champion, and what better way to continue this four-article Olympic Games series than establishing the pecking order for bragging rights? So, without further introductory verbiage, here are the top ten national Summer Olympic teams.
* The medal totals do not include this year’s performance.
10. Australia (133 Gold, 139 Silver, 167 Bronze – 439 total)
Our friends from Down Under have the distinction of having participated in every Summer Olympiad since the inaugural Games in 1896, not to mention having hosted two Games (1956 and 2000). In that time, while they don’t have the highest medal count, they have shown a respectable showing over the course of their Olympic participation. While images of Baywatch and scantly glad exotic beauties may warm your images of Australia, they are, in fact, a very competitive nation. In fact, the Australian government invests considerable funds to subsidize athletic training in order to field quality competitors for international competition. This is especially noteworthy if one considers Australia’s relatively small population compared to other nations. Yet, especially in recent Olympiads, Australia has consistently ranked in the top 10 in the final medal counts.
And it should come as no surprise that the sport that has helped them achieve this feat is swimming (because, you know, Australia is basically a REALLY big island). If you doubt the Australian prominence in the pool, then take a gander at their impressive medal count in the sport – a whopping 168. The Aussies take to water like fish. The Aussie dominance in this sport has allowed a few of their swimmers to come out of the pool and transition right into the spotlight of international celebrity. Marketable swimmers Dawn Fraser, Shane Gould, and Ian Thorpe (the Thorpedo) are known beyond the confines of the swimming lanes.
Not far from the pool, the Australians have also fielded good teams in rowing and sailing (it’s the island thing again). However, perhaps more interesting is that their track & field and cycling contingents have actually fared much better (51 total medals compared to 111 total medals, respectively). And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the Australian women’s basketball team as well, who have sent more than a few players to the WNBA and other professional leagues,– impressive. Images of (admittedly cute) Koala bears aside, the Australian Olympic team is not one to be taken lightly. They come to play and play hard.
9. Hungary (159 Gold, 140 Silver, 159 Bronze – 458 total)
Most Americans probably couldn’t locate Hungary on a map if their life depended on it, much less name a prominent Hungarian Olympic athlete. Granted, geography has never been our strong suit, but failing to recognize Hungary’s sporting achievements only means that you’re probably not a sports fan beyond games like basketball and football. Otherwise you would know that Hungary fields some of the best fencers in the world. True, sword play doesn’t get a lot of television coverage. Nevertheless, Hungarian athletes have walked away with 82 fencing medals, and that’s nothing to shake a foil at.
The Hungarians also happen to field very respectable wrestling teams (their efforts awarding them 51 total medals in this sport) and are a dominate force in water polo. It is unfortunate that Hungarian Olympians tend to get so little notice, because of the scant attention that is paid to the sports that they excel in.
One athlete in particular, however, managed to escape this dilemma. Laszlo Papp excelled in a sport that everyone is familiar with – boxing. And he was pretty darn good, winning gold in not one, but three consecutive Olympics (1948, 1952, and 1956). In fact, he was the first boxer to accomplish this feat. The middleweight boxer would go on to do well as a professional fighter as well. Overall, Hungary has accorded itself well in 24 Olympiads, across a number of sports.
8. Sweden (142 Gold, 160 Silver, 173 Bronze – 475 total)
Besides having one of the highest concentrations of McDonald’s restaurants in Europe, when the Swedes put down their Big Macs and fries, they transform into fierce athletic competitors. Well, maybe not “fierce”, but they do well enough to gain a bit of recognition for their efforts.
It’s interesting that quite a few folks scratch their heads when you mention Sweden in this context. Sweden is not exactly a small country, or an insignificant one. For certain, some of their Olympic success can be attributed to their persistent participation in the Games, which dates to the inaugural games in 1896. The Swedes have only missed one Olympiad, the 1904 Games. In fact, Sweden (or more specifically Stockholm) hosted the memorable 1912 Games. This well-organized Olympiad is referred to as the “Swedish Masterpiece”. Yes indeed, the Swedes are nothing in not organized and efficient.
Nevertheless, Nordic efficiency and beautiful women are only two salient factors to Sweden’s Olympic prowess. Ok, perhaps Sweden’s beautiful women don’t have anything to do with this topic, but they deserve honorable mention anyway. More to the point, Sweden has actually produced a nice stable of distance runners. While African nations tend to garner most of the accolades in distance races these days, the Swedes have done well on their own accord, especially in cross country. In fact, three of their most prominent Olympic cross country athletes (Gunde Svan, Sixten Jernberg, and Thomas Wassberg) have collectively won 19 Olympic medals – an impressive feat by any measure.
Sweden is also very competitive in wrestling. As one of only 12 nations to have earned more than 100 gold medals, Swedish athletes bring a competitive spirit to the Olympiad that places them among the upper echelon of national Olympic teams.
7. Italy (191 Gold, 157 Silver, 174 Bronze – 522 total)
Italians may have established a more renowned reputation for excellent cuisine, but this does not diminish their accomplishments or competitive drive in Olympic competition. Since 1896, Italy has only missed the 1904 Games and hosted the 1960 Games in Rome. The Italians, ranking 5th on the overall medal count list, continues to make respectable showings at the Olympiads. This is certainly true with fencing. I guess the whole sword thing is big in Europe. You have to admit there is an elegant flare to the sport.
Whatever the case, the Italians have dominated this sport, winning more gold medals (45) than anyone else and trailing France by only one medal for total fencing domination (114). In fact, fencer Edoardo Mangiarotti, is one of the most successful Olympians of all times, win 13 total medals spanning Games from 1936-1960. Basically, you did not want to meet this guy in a dark alley with an epee.
The Italians also are ranked 2nd in the medal count for cycling. And if all of this doesn’t grab you, then consider that the Italian Olympic uniforms are designed by…Armani! Fashionable on their worst day, the Italians know the meaning of style. Interestingly, the Italians field world-class volleyball and soccer teams that have not done as well as one would expect in Olympic competition. Both of these sporting teams have won numerous world titles and European championships, only to come up short in the Olympics. One has to believe that the 2012 contingent will take the field to resolve this deficiency, and you can bet the Italians will be hard to defeat.
6. France (191 Gold, 212 Silver, 234 Bronze – 637 total)
Wine, romance, a large tower thingy that is a tourist favorite: the French have a lot going for them. Of course, the French are also famous for just being French. The love fest carries over to their performance in Olympic competition. France is one of only a handful of nations that have participated in all the previous Summer Olympic Games (in addition to having hosted the 1900 and 1924 Games). The French, to be sure, are not ones to miss a good time. When the French Olympic team shows up, they come to play hard and win.
As with a number of other European nations, France is particularly good at fencing. They lead the overall medal count with 115 total medals in the sport. The two French athletes with the most Olympic medals (8 total medals apiece) happens to be fencers Philippe Cattiau and Roger Ducret. Weren’t the Musketeers French? That would explain it!
The French, surprisingly, lead the way in…croquet, with 7 medals. I’m sure the Brits are embarrassed that their cross-channel neighbors hold that particular crown. Nevertheless, France sends strong contingents in a number of more recognizable sports, such as cycling and track & field.
It’s kind of surprising, considering France’s commendable Olympic track record, that there isn’t a boat load of recognizable French Olympians. Without looking, the only name that came to mind was basketball player Tony Parker (who, once again, will be leading Team France into completion in 2012). My ignorance aside, there are indeed some notable French Olympians that deserve mention. Case in point, there’s David Douillet, who was the first Olympian to medal three times (two of them gold) in the heavy weight division for Judo, and swimmer Alain Bernard, who took home three medals at the 2008 Games.
5. Great Britain (207 Gold, 255 Silver, 253 Bronze – 715 total)
There is a resilience that you have to admire about the Brits. Great Britain has sent a team to every Summer Olympic Games. Further, London is the only city to have hosted the Games (including the 2012 Games) on three separate occasions. For certain, when it comes to Olympic competition, the Brits are mainstays.
And while Great Britain may not be the largest of nations, what they may lack in size (and population), they more than make up for this in heart and determination. This is especially true in Track & Field, where the United Kingdom has taken home 188 total medals, by far the most dominant European nation in the sport. While the British, on the other hand, are not very proficient at fencing (unlike their European counterparts), the nation is pretty good at waterborne events such as sailing, rowing and swimming. Of course, the United Kingdom IS an island, so one would assume that this makes sense.
The British aquatic skills being what they are, it’s probably no surprise that one of their all-time medal winners, Sir Steven Redgrave, is a rower. He took home six total medals, five of which are gold and were won in five consecutive Olympics). Other significant British Olympians are cyclist Bradley Wiggins (the only person to win both the Tour de France and a gold in track cycling), basketball player Luol Deng, and world boxing champion Amir Khan, to name just a few. Without a doubt, Great Britain is represented with a contingent of world class athletes and continues to garner success on the world stage and the Olympic Games.
4. China (163 Gold, 117 Silver, 105 Bronze – 385 total)
There are a whole lot of people living in China. By comparison, there are a whole lot of people living in India and Indonesia – and neither of these nations, individually or combined, – match the Olympic performance of China. China, by any standard, has an impressive Olympic record, especially when you consider that they have only participated in eight Summer Olympic Games (which is the justification for why they are placed this high on the list).
In that short period of time, they have accumulated more medals than only a handful of countries. While every country on this list has a higher medal count, none of these nations, except the US, has been able to keep pace with China’s meteoric rise in recent years. Their success, some argue, can be partly attributed the Chinese structured system of identifying and producing athletes from cradle to maturity – but hey, that’s just a footnote in the history books (plus quite a few Western nations do this as well).
What’s so…I’ll use the word amazing; is that China’s first gold medal didn’t come until the 1984 Olympics! These folks have made up ground in leaps and bounds. So much so that, at the 2008 Games in Beijing, the Chinese team walked away with the overall top medal count, and they very much challenging the US for the belt in 2012.
Make no mistake about it; the Chinese are determined to do well in as many sports as possible. Currently, they pretty much completely dominate the ranks of table tennis and badminton. Yeah, I know – “whoa, they play ping pong and backyard tennis really good”. Well, they ARE Olympic sports, and the Chinese have owned the medal count in these two sports, walking away with a total of 71 medals. But the Chinese are also recognized powers in diving, women’s weightlifting (really!), shooting, gymnastics, judo, taekwondo, and softball (no longer an Olympic sport). In most of these events, the Chinese rank at least second in total medal count – and I can’t say this enough – in only eight Games!
And, of course, they have the distinction of having turned out the best Olympic opening ceremony- EVER. While not too many Chinese Olympians have become household names despite their excellent performance in the Olympiads, it is pretty obvious that the Chinese have every expectation of being among the top contenders for the foreseeable future.
3. Germany (400 Gold, 413 Silver, 447 Bronze – 1260)
Germany has the distinction of having me do a bit of math to figure out their medal totals. For this list, I combined the medal totals of both the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic (formally West and East Germany, respectively). Nevertheless, despite the ideological differences of their respective governments while Germany was two separate and sovereign nations, they were still all Germans (in fact, the Germans participated as a unified team in the 1956, 1960 and 1964 Games). And despite some otherwise unsavory moments in recent history (including the Munich Massacre at the 1972 Olympics), Germany has been, and continues to be, extremely competitive on the Olympic stage.
This is especially true in equestrian events, in which the German squad has brought home 81 total medal (twice as many as their nearest competitor, the US). The Germans also have strong cycling, canoeing and track & field teams. Germany has always been a major European nation, and its sporting program is representative of this.
Germany is only one of three nations that possess a medal count that exceeds 1000. When you factor in the fact that Germany was excluded from three Olympic games because everyone was still ticked at them for those couple of World Wars they started, then the feat is all the more significant. In this regard, it’s not surprising that a German, Birgit Fischer (canoeing), occupies the 6th spot on the all time individual medal count list with 12 medals (8 gold, 4 silver). The most famous German Olympian is, without question, figure skater Katarina Witt – however, this list is about the Summer Games, so she only merits an honorable mention here.
Though Germany is bringing its smallest delegation since the unification of East and West to the 2012 Games in London, the German government has invested in a more structured athletic training system and pipeline (similar to the East German model) to address the nation’s declining Olympic showing. In the meantime, you can expect the Germans to continue to do well in the events that they remain strong in.
2. Russia (549 Gold, 458 Silver, 440 Bronze – 1447)
The Russian Federation has had a number of different incarnations under which it has competed in the Olympics. This includes its heyday as the Soviet Union (1952 – 1988), the lesser known, but officially recognized, Russian Empire (1900-1952) and a stint as a part of the Unified Team (1992). The medal count from the Soviet and Unified Team eras, which are included in this total, may be a bit misleading because they include medals won by athletes who were from Soviet states that are now independent countries (such as the Ukraine).
Nevertheless, it was during the Soviet era that Russia embarked on a concerted effort to produce athletes that were capable of competing at the highest levels on the international stage. In this, they were very successful. The Soviets were dominant in a number of sports such as gymnastics, wrestling, and synchronized swimming (and Russia continues this trend of dominance in these sports). In fact, the Olympian with the second highest overall medal count ever is Russian gymnast Larisa Latynina, with 18 medals, 9 of them gold. Up until this year, thanks to the continued dominance of American swimmer Michael Phelps, she held the record for highest number of medals, period.
Russia has four Olympians (including Latynina) that rank in the top 20 for most Olympic medals. At any rate, the period of Soviet dominance is marked by the Cold War, and the resulting tensions often involved an “East vs. West” confrontation. I would note, however, that athletic tension on the field of competition was better than nuclear armed armies facing one another across a battlefield. At any rate, the Soviet apparatus supported the training and livelihood of its athletes.
The subsequent downfall of the Soviet regime has detrimentally affected the Russian sporting establishment, resulting in a decline of athletic prominence across a wide spectrum of sporting events. Indeed, while Russia is still competitive in a few sports, they no longer seem to be the traditional rival to U.S. for Olympic dominance across a wide spectrum of events. This role has fallen to the Chinese. The Russians, no doubt, want to rectify this situation and, as they continue to field one of the larger overall contingents of athletes at the Games, you can bet they will be competitive and eager to demonstrate their athletic prowess.
1. United States (930 Gold, 728 Silver, 639 Bronze – 2297 total)
Whatever one wants to say about the United States of America, one fact that cannot be denied is that the nation has been extremely successful in Olympic competition (surprisingly this includes the Winter Games as well, with an overall medal count second only to Norway). In 26 Olympiads (4 of which were hosted by US cities – 1904, 1932, 1984 and 1996), Team USA has generally dominated the medal count. America is alone at the top of the medal heap with 2,296 total medals (and the only nation to exceed 2000). More to the point, the US has more gold medals than the total number of medals of each country on this list, except Russia and Germany. The top is an exclusive plateau indeed, with the nearest competitor falling almost 900 medals short of the US’s mark.
One reason for this is that the United States, at least in the recent history of the Games, has fielded athletes in almost every Olympic sport (or virtually so, absent a pre-Olympic qualification failure here and there). For certain, the US has the largest national contingent more often than not. Americans being Americans, there is an overwhelming desire to be competitive (which is to say an expectation of winning gold) in each and every sport.
Alas, this is not the always the case. With the exception of the occasional phenomenal athlete, the US hasn’t traditionally had very good showings in sports such as lacrosse and field hockey. On the other hand, in events like men and women’s basketball, track and field, and swimming, the US produces dominant teams. In fact, the U.S. leads the medal count in track and field, swimming, shooting, diving, boxing, basketball, tennis, volleyball, and golf. There are a host of other events that the US doesn’t lead, but remains highly competitive in (such as wrestling).
Individually, many US athletes are household names – from contemporary athletes such as swimmer Michael Phelps to historical figures as sprinter Jesse Owens. Amazingly, six out of the top 10 Olympians with the most medals are Americans. Without doubt, the US has left an indelible foot print on the modern Olympiad, one that will most likely continue well into the future.