So it's Olympic Season and so far the USA and China are in the lead as usual. If we look at the top winning countries from 2012 we get:
Top 20 Medal Winners 2012
Most of these countries have notably large populations to pick their athletes from. I've spent the last hour compiling all of this data together with their populations in 2012 so that I could work out a more fair metric for athletic prowess.
After a bottle of Old Rosie, two episodes of Ab Fab and a lot of manual data entry I ended up with a new table. The metric I have chosen is how many medals per million people:
Top 20 Medals Per Million Citizens (2012)
Stopping at 20, but Great Britain comes in at number 22, which seems fairly respectable.
However, this doesn't tell the whole story. While Grenadian newspapers should definitely have printed that barchart they only received 1 medal, while Jamaica got 12. What we have is a fairer metric, but one with much higher variance. There are various ways to design a new metric which would take a weighting based on both Medals per Population and Total Number of Medals, but ultimately where you draw the line is personal preference and highly affected by individual biases.
Better would be to look at the raw data. I include the top of it here (the population is in millions):
We can see that mixed in with the heavy hitters there are some one hit wonders. Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and New Zealand all performed consistently well. While the tiny islands of Grenada and The Bahamas managed to get 1 medal each, but they got easily have not. Equally there will be countries that would have got near the top of this list if they hadn't fluffed that 1 medal they almost got, but for them, in 2012, it went the other way.
We can immediately see that the Caribbean does amazingly well at the Olympics, while the USA comes in in 50th position and China at 73rd. Having a huge population to pick your team from clearly has a result.
Great Britain and Australia are the only countries that do well in both metric.