The Olympic Games tend to be dominated by the sporting powerhouses such as the United States, Russia, China and Great Britain every four years.
Indeed, the medal table at the Tokyo Olympics – albeit only five days in – sees hosts Japan lead the way with 13 golds, closely followed by China, the USA and the Russian Olympic Committee.
But arguably the story of the 2020 Games so far has come at the complete opposite end of the scale. The women’s triathlon event was won by Flora Duffy, who dominated the field and triumphed by a comfortable margin ahead of Team GB’s Georgia Taylor-Brown.
In doing so, not only secured her legacy as an Olympic gold medallist but ensured the country she represents – Bermuda – has become the smallest ever to strike gold at the Olympics.
The archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean is the home to just 64,000, and no official country with a smaller population has ever won an Olympic gold medal.
All of which got us thinking….which is the most successful ‘small’ country in the history of the Games? We know that the USA, China etc dominate the medals table, but they also have huge populations from which their athletes can be sourced. But what about smaller nations and their success at the event?
We can use a ‘per capita’ method for calculating which countries have been the most successful at the Olympic Games based upon gold medals per population size.
So here are the top-10 countries per capita in Olympic history:
Countries with the Most Olympic Golds Per Capita
|Country||Population||Golds||People per Gold|
|7||New Zealand||4.44 million||46||96,521|
#1 – Finland (53,564 pop. per gold)
If somebody asked you to name the most successful country at the Olympic Games, it’s doubtful that you would have said Finland.
But the Nordic nation has far exceeded expectations at the Games, and remember this only covers the summer version of the event – this isn’t a gold medal tally based on their efforts at the Winter Olympics.
It should be said that most of their golds came a long time ago, with the period from Stockholm in 1912 to London in 1948 particularly fruitful – 66 of their 101 gold medals came in that time.
And then, in 1952, the Finnish capital of Helsinki hosted the Games. They won 22 medals in all on home soil, including six golds.
Some 74 of their golds have come in two disciplines – athletics and wrestling, while in the modern era (post 1992) six Finns have struck gold in canoeing, sailing, shooting, the men’s shot put and the women’s javelin.
#2 – Hungary (56,971 pop. per gold)
Following closely on Finland’s heels are Hungary, whose 175 gold medals puts them eighth on the all-time list.
They have spread their gold medal tally out over more than a century of Olympic Games editions, and twice have finished third in the overall medal table – in 1936 (Berlin) and 1952 (Helsinki).
Their best sports have been fencing (37 golds), swimming (28), canoeing (25) and wrestling (19), with Alada Gerevich – routinely described as the ‘best swordsman in history’ – claiming seven golds in a reign of terror from 1932 to 1960, where he won gold in Rome as a sprightly 50-year-old.
Another duo of Hungarian fencers, Pal Kovacs and Rudolf Karpati, won five golds each.
#3 – Bahamas (59,166 pop. per gold)
The Bahamas have won six golds at the Olympic Games – with five of those coming since the turn of the millennium.
The anomaly is the sailing duo of Durward Knowles and Cecil Cooke, who teamed up in the sailing event at the 1964 Games in Tokyo and upset the odds. Knowles is still one of only five Olympians to have incredibly represented their country over a 40-year span.
In the modern era, it’s been sprinting all the way for the Bahamas. Pauline Davis-Thompson won the 200m to go with the gold that she and her 4 x 100m relay colleagues claimed at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, while Tonique Williams-Darling and Shaunae Miller won the 400m in 2004 and 2016 respectively.
Completing the Bahaman set is the men’s 4 x 400m relay team, who struck gold at London 2012.
#4 – Bermuda (64,000 pop. per gold)
The last census of the Bermudan population put the figure at approximately 64,000, so that’s what we’re working with here.
Flora Duffy is the sole gold medallist from Bermuda, and she may stay as such for a long, long time.
However, she’s not the only Olympic medallist from the island – Clarence Hill won bronze in the heavyweight boxing event of 1976.
#5 -Sweden (65,517 pop. per gold)
Sweden have excelled at both the summer and winter versions of the Olympics.
Their salad days came way back in 1912 when they hosted the Games in Stockholm. That year they won 65 medals – including 22 gold – but still finished behind the USA in the overall table.
More than two-thirds of their gold medal collection came prior to the 1956 Games, with wrestling, equestrian, athletics and shooting their four main areas of success.
The most decorated Swedish Olympian of all time is Gert Fredriksson, who won various canoeing disciplines six times between 1948 and 1960.
#6 – Norway (89,464 pop. per gold)
Sweden’s Nordic neighbours Norway are the sixth best country in Olympic history based on a per capita calculation.
The highest that the Norwegians have ever finished in a medal table is sixth at Antwerp in 1920, however they have been consistently chipping away with golds every four years since.
Unsurprisingly given the choppy waters up there, Norway have excelled the most in sailing with 17 golds, while shooting (13), athletics (7) and canoeing (6) have also been sports in which they have thrived.
#7 – New Zealand (96,521 pop. per gold)
While *only* winning 46 gold medals in Olympic history, New Zealand’s relatively small population sees them over-achieving on a per capita basis.
The Kiwis have excelled on the track with ten Olympic golds, but they have been equally adept on the water too with a handy run of gold medals in sailing, canoeing and swimming.
In the 1960s, Peter Snell was a middle-distance running powerhouse, winning gold in the 800m at both the Rome and Tokyo Games and the 1500m at the latter.
Ian Ferguson is another three-time gold medal Olympian for New Zealand in swimming, while Simon Dickie won two golds without breaking sweat – he was the cox for his country’s successful rowing teams of 1968 and 1972.
#8 – Grenada (111,000 pop. per gold)
This shouldn’t take long. Grenada have only ever won one Olympic gold medal, but given that their population is 111,000 people – roughly the same size as Cheltenham – you have to give them credit for that.
Before Flora Duffy struck gold for Bermuda, Grenada – the tiny island in the Caribbean – was the smallest nation to have won an Olympic event.
The man responsible? Kirani James in the 400m at the London Games in 2012.
#9 – Jamaica (123,181 pop. per gold)
All 23 of Jamaica’s gold medals in the Olympic Games have come in athletics events, and most courtesy of their outstanding pedigree for running very fast indeed.
As many as 15 of them have come since Beijing in 2008, and you can probably guess one of the key figures responsible….
Usain Bolt won eight gold medals in an astonishing career, triumphing in the 100m and 200m in 2008, 2012 and 2016, as well as the 4 x 100m relay in the latter two editions of the Games.
#10 – Denmark (124,444 pop. per gold)
Pound for pound, the Scandinavian nations tend to do very well for their size at the Olympic Games – Denmark are the third country from the region in this top-ten.
Like their Nordic neighbours, sailing, shooting and canoeing have been areas of strength for the Danes, but they have also enjoyed prolific success in cycling and rowing with seven golds in each.
Their most decorated champion is Paul Elvstrom, whose 40-year Olympic career – which started in 1940 and continued until 1980 – saw him clinch four gold medals in the sailing disciplines.