Cartogram Special – The Olympic Games

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  • Written by  Benjamin Hennig
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Cartogram Special – The Olympic GamesBenjamin Hennig/

Which country has been the most successful in Olympic history? Benjamin Hennig charts the winners and participants of the Olympic Games

The 2016 Summer Olympics are the first Olympics to be hosted in South America. More than 10,000 athletes of the over 200 member nations are expected to compete in Rio de Janeiro as well as events in Brasília, Belo Horizonte, Salvador, São Paulo, and Manaus.

The cartogram in Figure 1 shows the countries of the world resized according to the total number of participants from each country (data as of 30 June 2016). Competing athletes are entered by their National Olympic Committees (NOCs) and also have to go through competitions in order to meet the entry standards for the games. Some numbers are influenced by further special circumstances: Brazil as the host nations did not have to go through all qualifying rounds and received automatic entry in some disciplines.

Athletes from Kuwait will this year compete under the Olympic flag due to its NOC having been suspended. In this map, these are still shown as representing their country. Russia also faced suspension, leading to its athletes being banned from all athletic competitions, which reduces the number of athletes competing for Russia this year. In the light of the migrant crisis, a team of ten Refugee Olympic Athletes will also participate in the games for the first time

Figure 1Figure 1



The ultimate goal of every athlete is an Olympic medal. A total of 306 sets of medals will be awarded at the 306 events in 41 disciplines of the 28 sports represented at this year’s event. When looking back at the history of Summer Olympics between 1896 and 2012, athletes have received 14,714 medals in 27 games, as documented in the database of the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

Figure 2Figure 2

The distribution and number of all medals ever given out are shown in Figure 2 above in the circles overlaid on each country (Figure 3, below, shows the same tally but as a resized cartogram). The size of each circle is proportional to the number of medals for that country. Since countries have changed in the history of the modern games, some adjustments to the data were necessary to reflect today’s territorial borders. The main aim in the adjustment was to include as many of all medals as possible, while retaining our understanding of the world as we see it today.

The main redistribution of medals for countries that no longer exist therefore followed two strategies: Where a country that does not exist anymore has a successor, the data for that country were merged with today’s successor of this country (such as the German Democratic Republic which was merged with the data for Germany, or – slightly more disputable – the data for Soviet Union being assigned to Russia). In other cases, the medals for a no-longer existing country were redistributed over all succeeding countries in equal parts, such as the medals for Czechoslovakia which were counted in equal parts for today’s Czech Republic and Slovakia. Only those medals not being clearly associated with a country (either of today or of the past) were left out in this map (such as of the Mixed Teams of the early days).

Figure 3Figure 3

The distribution of medals shows the existing Olympic inequalities: The overall patterns are a reflection of wealth distribution in the world, raising the question whether money can buy sporting success. Besides investment in sports by those countries who can afford it, the medal tables also reflect a battle for global supremacy in political terms. The heyday of the Cold War still leaves a lasting legacy in the all-time medal map where ‘the relative power of the United States and the Soviet Union were regularly measured in gold, silver and bronze’ (quoted from The Economic Times).

In more recent Olympic history, a new power is emerging on the world stage, with the battle for the top spot in the medal table now being fought between the USA and China. The Olympics are about much more than only sports: they tell us a lot about our changing economic and political world.

Benjamin Hennig (@geoviews) is a senior research fellow in the School of Geography and the Environment at the University of Oxford. He is involved in the Worldmapper project and is author of

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