Best Ever? The Bahamas! On page 58 begins a sport-by-sport preview of the '88 Games. But first a salute to a number of golden countries, big and small

September 13, 1988

OF ALL THE REPUBLICS, KINGdoms, principalities and emirates that
have proudly paraded their athletes across the Olympic stage since
the modern Summer Games began in 1896, the United States has won the
most gold medals by far, 717 1/2 (a draw equals half a gold; the most
recent occurred between Peter Vidmar of the U.S. and Li Ning of China
in the men's gymnastics pommel horse at the 1984 Games). The Soviet
Union has taken home the second most, 340, though that country did
not compete in the Summer Games until 1952. So lay a laurel wreath on
Uncle Sam and hoist the Bear onto the victory platform, right?
Not so fast. Simple totals (top chart at right) tell only a piece
of the gold medal story; on a per capita basis, the Americans and the
Soviets are nowhere near the best. Consider that the Soviet Union's
80 gold medals at the 1980 Olympics, boycotted by the U.S. and 61
other countries, works out to barely one for every 3.3 million of its
citizens at the time. Or that the U.S.'s 83 gold medals at the '84
Games, skipped by the U.S.S.R. and most of its Eastern bloc comrades,
represent a meager 1-for-3 million ratio. Compared with, say, the
1-for-108,000 gold-to-population ratio of the Bahamas in 1964 ,
(chart at left), the U.S. and U.S.S.R.'s stats make the two countries
distant also-rans in the Summer Games Gold Medal Sweepstakes, Per
Capita Division.
When population is factored in, many smaller countries routinely
outperform the Olympic superpowers. In recent times Hungary (current
pop. 10.6 million), Cuba (10.2 million) and Bulgaria (9 million) have
struck Olympic gold out of proportion to their size -- when they're
not boycotting, that is. In the '50s and '60s, Australia, which never
had more than 13 million citizens during that period, was also a
little giant -- benefiting from the home-field advantage (bottom
chart at right) that usually accrues to the Olympic host, the Aussies
did particularly well at Melbourne in '56 -- although today the land
Down Under is both more populous and less athletically accomplished.
Of course, the most conspicuous overachiever in recent times is East
Germany, a land of almost 17 million citizens, every last one of whom
seems determined to win an Olympic gold medal.
East Germans have become accustomed to dominating the Summer
Games, but for the citizens of countries both large and small that
devote far fewer resources to the quest for gold, winning that first
gold medal can be a source of immense national pride. In 1956, Iran
rejoiced when the nation of 19 million, which had never finished
first in any Olympic event until that year, won not one, but two
golds, both in wrestling and both on the same day. Iran has since won
two more golds, one in wrestling and one in weightlifting. In
Tunisia, Mahomed Gammoudi became a national hero, having won the
5,000 meters at Mexico City in 1968 (the country's population was
then 4.5 million) for his nation's first and only gold.
Quite a few countries will be going to Seoul looking for a
breakthrough of Gammoudi-like proportions. Indeed, of the 160-plus
countries expected to compete in South Korea, only 55 have ever won a
gold medal at the Summer Games. Indonesia (pop. 177 million) has
never done so, and isn't likely to until badminton, in which it is a
power, becomes a medal sport. That will happen at Barcelona in 1992;
alas, in Seoul, badminton is only an exhibition sport. Another
country awaiting its first gold is Colombia (pop. 30 million), whose
veteran rapid-fire pistol shooter, Bernardo Tovar, feels confident he
will deliver it in Seoul -- although he expresses the fear that a
good showing by him or any countryman in his sport would only enhance
the impression that ''Colombia must be too full of gunmen.''
Thailand, a kingdom of 52 million, has never won a gold medal,
either, but is edging ever closer in boxing; a Thai light flyweight
won a bronze medal in '76 and a light welterweight won a silver in
L.A. In hopes of breaking the gold medal ice in Seoul, the Thais
recruited Olympic boxers from among the ranks of the country's
plentiful kick boxers, then spent more than $400,000 to train and
feed the 20 selected athletes and their families. Also goldless but
brimming with hope is the Philippines (pop. 59 million), where a
wealthy businessman, Lucio Tan, has posted a handsome bounty: a free
house and one million pesos ($47,500) will be bestowed on the first
Filipino gold medalist.
Generosity is also rampant in South Korea, where in ancient times
the purpose of sport was not to win but to instill mental and moral
discipline. Times have changed. South Korea (pop. 43 million) won its
first gold medal in 1976 (Yang Yung Mo's at 136 1/2 pounds in
freestyle wrestling), added six more in 1984 and is determined to do
better than ever at its own Games. (By contrast, North Korea, with a
population of 20 million, has won two gold medals, in shooting in '72
and boxing in '76.) Accordingly, South Korean officials have come up
with an incentive plan for their Olympians. The sports federations
will lavish on those who win gold medals a six-figure cash bonus, a
pension of at least $800 a month for life and exemptions from
military service.
For all their efforts, though, the majority of countries will not
experience the pleasure of having their anthems played and their
flags unfurled during the Olympic victory ceremonies. In fact, no
more than 30 countries have won gold medals in any one Games (Mexico
City, 1968), and since 1968 no more than 26 countries have shared the
wealth in an Olympics (Montreal, '76). So elusive is Olympic gold
that most nations would surely envy the success of the University of
Southern California (current enrollment: 30,500), an American
institution of higher learning whose students and alumni have won at
least one gold medal at every Summer Olympics. This includes even the
U.S.-boycotted '80 Games in Moscow, where Michelle Ford, an
Australian and Trojan swimmer, won the 800-meter freestyle. If USC
were a country, its total of 78 golds in 21 Olympics would place it
11th on the alltime Olympic victory chart -- behind Japan's 83 and
ahead of Australia's 67 3/4.