Are All Olympic Gold Medals Equal? – ACTHUNG!!!

I’d like to begin by making it clear, I do not believe that one sport is harder to do and train for than another.  Nor is it my intention to minimize anyone’s hard earned gold medal.  Rather the purpose of this blog is to consider the factors which influence the achievement of that elusive gold medal.  I understand this is a controversial topic. Perhaps you’ll agree or disagree with me, but if you’re at all considering the points raised, then I’ve succeeded in this blog’s objective. 

 Have you ever wondered why certain countries seem to dominate the medal count when it comes to the Olympic Games?  True a country’s population may play a role, but did you know the single most predictive factor of a country’s medal count at the Olympic Games is Gross Domestic Product (GDP).   GDP per capita is indicative of a country’s living standards.  One might assume a greater GDP allows a country to provide the facilities, coaches and infrastructure to develop various sporting opportunities, thereby giving way to greater performance results.

And what about the likeliness for an athlete to be successful in a given sport?  Similar to GDP, turns out there is another monumental factor at play – depth of competition.  By this I mean, how many people in the world participate in a given sport.  For example, if one is competing in a sport that involves only 10 nations, versus a sport which involves 220 nations one’s likeliness for medalling is greater in the sport with 10 nations.

Mitchell and Stewart (2007) have proposed a Competitive Index for International Sport, by evaluating the characteristics associated with sporting success and the participating countries for the various sports.  They determined that it was possible to rate the competitive quality of a given sport and the chances for success, whereby the lower the competitive index score the greater chance an individual stood to be successful at the Olympic Games.

For example, the International Ice Hockey Federation has 70 member nations, which is pretty remarkable and competitive, and for that reason you can understand why winning the World Cup in hockey is a big deal to Canadians.  However, consider the International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF) which has 212 member nations, and with the allowance of 3 athletes per country to compete in a given event at the Olympic Games, suddenly the possible depth of competition can be as much as 636 world-class athletes…   It’s no wonder why winning the gold medal in the 100m is one of the most coveted medals in the world.

While the size of the competition field is one aspect, another thing to consider is the resources and opportunities at hand.  Perhaps the reason why sports like Athletics (Track & Field) and Soccer are the most participated in the world is because there is minimal barrier to do these sports.  The cost of equipment/facility is negligible, compared to a sport which may require ice time, sailboat or a horse.  Consider the fast paced and exciting game of polo which requires horses to be ridden in 3 minute intervals.  As such, each polo player must have at least 8 horses, and each horse can cost you $200,000 plus sheltering, veterinary and travel expenses.  It’s not surprising that most of us have never played polo in our lives.

Even amongst elite level athletes, resources play a big role in the success of an athlete and the difference between good and great.  As a world-class athlete, I’ve experienced and witnessed the incredible impact support, resources and finance influence performances.  It is the difference between eating healthy, receiving necessary therapy, having you’re coach travel with you to competition and not.  This can be the difference between a gold medal and a eighth place finish.  I’ve witnessed far too many athletes miss out on that podium because they didn’t have the necessary resources.

Outlier  The birth-rate effect, described by Maxwell Gladwell in the book “Outlier,” discusses how being born early in the year influences one’s chances of becoming an NHL player.  However, researcher Jean Cote (whose works Gladwell cites in his discussion of the birth-rate effect) points out that actually where one is born (birth-place effect) has a greater impact on an athlete’s chances for success (Côté et al., 2006).  The reason – resources and opportunity.

We must be exposed or presented with the opportunity, to ever really know what hidden abilities lay within us.  I know this fact all too well.  Really, if I wasn’t working at McDonald’s that one random day when I was 17 years old and asked, “If I wanted to learn how to high jump?”  I would never have become an Olympian.   It’s as simple as that.  Which often leaves me wondering how many untapped “talents” are out there and never developed?

Going for Gold
The road to the Olympic Games and the podium is a hard one, no matter the sport one comes from, or the resources and opportunity in place.  At the end of the day, nothing can replace the passion we as athletes must have to relentlessly pursue excellence, through lactic acid, broken bones and fatigue.  It is a fire that must inherently burn to be sustained.   Still it is worth contemplating (in the back of your mind) how depth of competition, resources and opportunity, as well as other factors may contribute to the achievement of a gold medal.

Providing food for thought,




Jean Côté, MacDonald, D. J., Baker, J., and Abernethy, B. (2006). When ‘where’ is more important than ‘when’: Birthplace and birthdate effects on the achievement of sporting expertise. Journal of Sports Science, 24, 1065-1073.

Mitchell, H. & Stewart, M. F.   (2007) A competitive index for international sport.  Applied Economics, 39, 587-603.

Written by

Dr. Nicole Forrester is an Olympian High Jumper, Commonwealth Games Gold Medalist, Mental and High Performance Consultant, and Professor. She believes and is committed to the pursuit of excellence. Nicole is the founder of Optimal Zone Inc. a consultant company which specializes in helping athletes and organizations reach and sustain high performance through training and developmental programs. Additionally, she has worked as a reporter, television host and blogger with CBC, and has provided content and comment for CTV, Rogers and Discovery Health Channel. Her blogs include high performance and lifestyle. Occasionally, she likes to push the envelope, blogging on taboo topics she references as Achtung Series!

6 Comments to “Are All Olympic Gold Medals Equal? – ACTHUNG!!!”

  1. Maurizio Calcinai says:

    The article is very interesting.

  2. Russell Reimer says:

    I agree with your assessment that many athletes don’t have an opportunity to discover hidden talents which is why sport discovery should be central to any leading strategy to have young kids get involved and stay involved in sport. The on-boarding process is too often overlooked when the internal motivation that drives young kids is simple — if I’m good at something and continue to improve, I’ll stick with it, maybe even love it. If they get to a competitive level where they need to call upon everything they’ve got (and more), there’s no motivation deeper than the passion your learn and internalize when they’re young. See as an example.

    The second important part of a solid sport strategy is matchmaking. There’s a program out of Sport BC and Legacies Now ( that helped young athletes discover the type of sports they could excel at based on inputs gathered through a simple fitness challenge. It goes even a step further by aligning with winter and summer Olympic sports in Canada. A great place to start if you have young athletes looking for an opportunity to excel and fulfill their potential.

    • Thanks Russel for your comment. While I support and love the idea of youth being exposed to various sports there needs to be caution, such that early sport specialization does not become the vehicle with this approach. That is one of the worst things one could ever do in an attempt to promote development. It’s a direct root to early sport dropout and loss of fun. We have an excellent Sport for Life (aka Long Term Athlete Development) model… we just need to start using it. And we also need to get more kids in the playground.

  3. Emmy says:

    So why doesn’t Canada come up with more medals every year? China isn’t that great GDP-wise and they just reap all the rewards.

    • Actually China’s GDP is greater than Canada. They have the second greatest GDP. But, a great question none the less. LOVE IT!!! And actually could write a book on it. On the World level, Canada is up there in terms of GDP. In a simple answer it comes down to resources and opportunities. We struggle severely in this area. We can do better! We MUST DO better!!!

      You are right, we can do a lot better, but we have to create a culture valuing sport, instead of “a sport or two.” We are force to reckon with when it comes to hockey but as a country we value it. The majority of Canadian children will play hockey at some point in their lives, but how many of us will ever be exposed to Kayak/Canoe, Rowing, Fencing, or Boxing. It must begin at the grass root of having more kids exposed and involved in various sports for FUN and not for competition and cultivate that, whereby overtime some may elevate to the level of world class through their exposure to sport. Moreover, Canadians need to value sport beyond the scope of every 4 years. I can go on and on, and probably need to reserve it for a book or a manifesto… lol!

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