Image: Andrei Aramnau
Jung Yeon-je  /  AFP - Getty Images
The small country of Belarus, which ranks No. 84 in population, has snatched a surprising 13 medals at the summer Games including Andrei Aramnau's gold in weightlifting.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 8/23/2008 12:15:13 AM ET 2008-08-23T04:15:13

The winning formula is just so simple: Gold equals gold.

At the Summer Olympics, the world’s economic superpowers are usually masters of the medal count. In Beijing, the 10 nations with the fattest economies — including China, the United States and Russia — have packed the podiums, scooping up 59 percent of the gold medals and 51 percent of the overall hardware as of Friday.

At the Games as in life: You can chase money, but you just can’t beat money.

As at any swanky soirée, a few scrappy party crashers have spiced up the Chinese sports festival. Chief among them are the Jamaican sprinters, winners of nine medals, five of them gold — all produced by a country with an economy ranked No. 108 in the world and a population smaller than Kansas.

And sneaking in through the window, there’s the Belarus bunch: They’ve hauled in 13 medals (more than Spain, Brazil or Mexico) despite a comparatively small gross domestic product of $82 billion — less than the combined wealth of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. 

“Smaller countries that are able to target and focus their resources on a relatively small number of sports/events can compete for medals on the international landscape,” Steve Roush, the U.S. Olympic Committee’s chief of sport performance said via email from Beijing.

“You can see from the medal table, it doesn’t take enormous numbers to get into the top 10," he said. "The biggest surprise is the Jamaican team.”

In other words, spend wisely. A University of South Australia analysis found that one gold medal typically costs a country $37 million in training funds. Jamaica has invested everything in speed, winning sprints and hurdle races. Belarus has pumped its money into muscle, capturing medals in weightlifting, rowing, wrestling and throwing events at the track.

Specialization can help up-and-coming teams dominate the more anonymous sports. But a gold medal is a gold medal, whether it’s earned in the pool in prime time or on a sailboat on Fushan Bay.

Great Britain, an economic force with a nearly $2 trillion GDP, has been an also-ran in many recent summer games. At Athens in 2004, England took nine gold and 30 overall medals.

But all that changed this year. So far in Beijing, the Brits are sitting near the top of the leaderboard with 17 gold and 40 total medals, almost all of them coming in cycling and sailing.

“The country that has probably moved the most is Great Britain,” said Alex Baumann, a former Canadian Olympic swim champion who runs Canada’s effort to boost its medal count at the 2012 Summer Games in London.“Three years ago, the U.K. was characterized by having a disjointed system. Two years ago, they started to get their act together.”

The British sports buildup has coincided with London’s designation as the 2012 host city. Even before the official designation of London as the host city in 2005, British officials had seeded Olympic efforts by directing national lottery funding to pay for upgrades in its coaches and training facilities.

Similarly, China vastly inflated its sports infrastructure in preparation for the Beijing Games and has seen its gold medal counts spike: 16 in 1996, 28 in 2000 and 32 in 2004 and 46 so far this year.

Both China and England have some wealth to tap. Not so with some less prosperous countries that have enjoyed outsized success at the Beijing Games.

Cuba, with a tiny $45 billion GDP, has earned 14 medals in China. Kenya, with a GDP of just $41 billion, has snared eight medals. That is the same number as Brazil, with its sizable $1.65 trillion economy.

A June 2008 economic paper published by consultants PricewaterhouseCoopers found a strong historic link between money and medals: Countries with the bigger GDPs tend to be represented most often on Olympic podiums. It’s logical — nations with more resources can, if they choose, devote more money to training their athletes, according to the paper’s author John Hawksworth, head of macroeconomics for the company.

“Higher GDP per capita may also be associated with higher average nutrition and health levels, which could also boost performance in some sports,” Hawksworth said.

Some smaller countries have broken through by sending their athletes to train at U.S. colleges. Also, former Soviet bloc states like Belarus and Cuba are still living off the fumes of the Big Red sports machine of the 1960s and 1970s.

The long-term key is having the national will to win more medals. Politics and pride are the engines.

It’s not known how much money China has plowed into its Olympic program, but it’s thought to be far more than the United States. According to Roush, the U.S. ranks No. 7 in Olympic funding among the 10 countries with the largest GDPs. Unlike nearly all other Olympic nations, Team USA gets no government backing; it is financed through corporate sponsorships, donations and broadcast rights fees — roughly $100 million a year.

And if money equals medals, the next Olympic breakthrough could be America’s frosty friends to the north. Three years ago, Team Canada launched a program called “Own the Podium” — a five-year, $110-million strategy to push Canada atop the medal standings when it hosts the winter Games in 2010.

Last year, Canada hired ex-swimming star Baumann to head a similar initiative for its summer athletes. Dubbed “Road to Excellence,” the scheme will dump $90 million of federal money into Canada’s Olympic pipeline to improve performance at the London Games four years from now.

In Beijing, Team Canada took some early ribbing from its fans back home, especially after it trailed Togo one medal to zero in the first week of competition. Some Canadians started to call their crew the “Ugly Betty” of the medal standings. As of Thursday, Canada had 15 medals.

“I do believe in Canada we have a ways to go to be coordinated and integrated,” Baumann said. “If we want to compete with the rest of the world, we have to commit to that.”

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