The Data Blog at the Guardian's sport section has printed interesting tables of Olympic medals that take the nations' population or GDP or team size into account.
Just to be sure, the table of unadjusted gold+silver+bronze medal scores at the Summer Olympics is led by China (34+21+18), U.S. (30+19+21), Britain (22+13+13), Korea (12+5+6), Russia (10+18+20), France (8+9+11), Germany (7+15+9), Italy (7+6+4), Hungary (6+2+3), Kazachstan (6+0+1), and let me stop at this point.
My ultimate role model for an average nation, the Czech Republic, is somewhere at the 28th place (1+3+1). It's insightful to see how the tables change if you switch from those purely "extensive" scores to "intensive ones".
Some people in Czechia and similar nations could say "the medal score of ours isn't so bad given our size". However, this is usually a myth – at least in our case, it is. If you adjust a medium-size country's score for the population or GDP, you're guaranteed to change almost nothing. So in all the adjusted scores, we're still somewhere at the 30th-40th spot. The Czech Republic simply isn't as small as some people would like to imagine.
Just like Czechia's tally looks mediocre, we must notice that other countries have fell, too. In particular, both German republics – even before the fall of communism – would be closer to the top than the unified Germany seems to be today. Is this drop because of the reduced desire of the Germans to compete against their ideological foes in the other German country?
The top of the table changes brutally if you divide the number of medals by the population. In the gold medals, the table is led by Grenada, Jamaica, New Zealand, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, Kazakhstan, Denmark, and the U.K. completing the top ten and defending the good name of the empires. Czechia is 25th, the U.S. is 27th, and China is 36th. As you can see, the Sino-American currency union plummets towards the mediocrity. This is just an innocent reminder of the fact that in most cases, when nations such as China and the U.S. are proud about their being at the top, they're mostly proud about their size, not about any "intensive" quantities. Apologies to the Americans and others for this perhaps inconvenient truth. The size of a nation isn't really a rational reason to be proud about; it's about the choice where you place your identity. I would most naturally place my identity to Czechoslovakia which has 1+4+4 medals at this point, not too bad; but if the Europeans were thinking about the medals for the EU (no one does), the 450-million-citizen EU would of course beat (in the "extensive medal counts") the U.S. plus China combined! ;-)
Because the GDP per capita isn't quite constant over the world, you get a different table when you divide the number of gold medals by the nations' GDPs. Grenada and Jamaica remain at the top. However, a completely new country jumps from the 19th spot in the "per capita" counting right to the bronze medal. What's the name of this country? Yes, it's North Korea. I hope that they will celebrate their being the third best country in the world in the Olympic medals per dollar of GDP. These comrades are followed by other suspects, namely Georgia, Ethiopia, Belarus, and Cuba – before a wealthier country, Hungary, defends the spot number nine. China, Czechia, and America are found at spots 25, 26, and 35, respectively.
An entirely different table arises if you adjust the gold medals per team size. Grenada wins, followed by China, Iran, North Korea, Ethiopia, the U.S., and Kazakhstan. If you count all medals, the table would start with China, Iran, and the U.S. The major new player in this table is Iran, of course, that minimizes the team size in order to minimize the number of casualties in the case that the mullah-in-chief decides to perform a mass terrorist attack against the London Olympic games. Czechia stands at 37th and 48th place in gold and all medals here; those numbers start to be painful.
You may notice that even if you divide the medal tally by the team size, China and the U.S. remain at the top or near the top. Why is it so? Well, it's because the average quality of the team members in similarly large countries is simply higher than the average quality of the team members in smaller countries. And why is this the case? Because there's just a higher degree of competition you have to get through before you make it to the national team of a large nation; the team size simply doesn't quite scale with the population of the nation.
There are clearly some nations that seem more successful than their neighbors – like Hungary, Slovenia, or Croatia, to mention some nearby countries with an impressive score; and there are some countries which are huge and have almost no Olympic successes, for example India. A billion of people hasn't earned a single gold medal yet and the total number of medals is roughly three. I suppose that sport is "too professional" and India may unfortunately suffer from its "third world status" in the sports much like in some industrial activities. Moreover, its political representation doesn't have too strong a need to "prove something to someone".
However, aside from these somewhat extreme examples, the question whether people in a nation should feel proud or special because of their athletes depends on how exactly you compute the scores and how you compare them...