We Americans love to compare ourselves to other countries — and win. So we count medals at the Olympics and gloat over our tally. Note we don’t count how our children’s education compares to the world. (Let’s just say we rank behind South Korea, Canada, Estonia, and most of Slovenia.)
Here’s the education rankings, for example:
But back to the Olympics. We win! We win! USA! USA! We won 104 medals, crushing China and their paltry 88 medals.
But then again, maybe we didn’t win. We won 104 medals because we are the most successful world economy, with the best standard of living. And if you ever read Guns, Germs, and Steel, you realize that high standards of living allow for leisure and specialization. For example, the leisure and specialization of spending your entire life (and an incredible amount of hard work) to become the best athlete you can.
So the real question is, how do we compete on GDP per medal. That’s an indicator of how well we’re spending the leisure and good life that we’ve built in the US.
The answer: We suck.
We’re 66th in GDP per medal out of 81 medal winning countries. But don’t worry, China is only 54th. Russia is 35th. The top spot belongs to that Olympic powerhouse: Grenada. They have just $820m in GDP for their one medal. For comparison, the US is at $150 billion per medal.
Jamaica, Mongolia, Georgia, and Kenya round out the top 5. Is it possible they are less lazy than we are? I doubt it. It’s perhaps that Olympic glory is one of a narrow set of possible means of attaining glory. Their best athletes don’t go to the NFL, NBA, MLB , or even the very tempting league of Wall Street.
More data on GDP per medal here.