Update, 8/7/12: The most current data from the 2012 games has been added to the charts.
When all the medals from the 2012 Summer Olympics in London are tallied up, the top slots will likely be occupied by the usual suspects—the United States, China, and Russia. But what if we tried to measure countries' Olympic achievements without simply counting how many medals they bring home? What if we compared their athletes' performance against the size of their economies and populations?
That's what this interactive chart does. Click the play button at the bottom to see animated data starting in 1960. Hover over dots to see country names; click on a dot to turn on its label. (And scroll down to the bottom of this post for a customizable version.)
As you'll see in the chart above, looking at Olympic records this way produces some interesting results. For example, in the 2008 Beijing games, Jamaica only won 11 medals (or 32 medal points, if you assign 4 points to gold, 2 to silver, 1 to bronze). But it outperformed the big guns like the United States and China when it came to how many medal points it got relative to its developing economy and tiny population. While the US garnered 0.02 medal points per billion dollars of GDP and 0.8 medal points for every 1 million Americans, Jamaica picked up 2.2 medal points per billion dollars of GDP and 11.9 medal points for every 1 million Jamaicans. Not bad.
By this metric, other countries that outperformed the big medal winners in 2008 included the Bahamas, Cuba, Estonia, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Mongolia, and Zimbabwe.
This isn't necessarily a sign that these countries are up-and-coming athletic powerhouses. In some cases it simply means that they have a handful of world-class athletes and terrible economies (e.g. Ethiopia and Zimbabwe). Doing well in events that award a lot of medals also helps (e.g., Cuba and boxing and judo.) Other factors that may help countries' overall Olympic performance: Being a former member of the Soviet Bloc or a country with a planned economy, since they are more likely to aggressively recruit and train athletes. Being the host country also provides a bump (e.g. Mexico in 1968).