There is arguably no better celebration of sporting achievement than the Olympics. Sure, events like the Super Bowl and FIFA World Cup might also draw the world’s attention, but there is something unique about the Olympics. Perhaps it’s down to the fact that many of the sports and athletes on show only enter into the limelight every four years. After all, the Olympics is best perceived as an example of ordinary humans doing extraordinary things.
But we can also talk about the Olympics as constantly evolving. At Paris 2024, for example, new events will be added to the programme. Breakdancing will be one of the new events on show. While it may seem strange to add dancing, considering sports like karate and baseball have been removed, there have been more unusual sports throughout Olympic history. But there is a purpose here, as the authorities claim breakdancing is more reflective of society, youth and the urbanisation of sport.
Nonetheless, while the complexion of the Olympics might change over time, the goals for athletes and nations remain the same – success. But which nations have been most successful in the pursuit of glory? Below we list the top ten nations of all time at the Summer Olympics:
*Please note that this table is by total medals achieved. Other ranking systems use gold medals won as the main barometer of success.
1. The United States of America – 2673
There are no prizes for guessing that Team USA comes on top. The Americans have dominated the Olympics medal table in recent decades – topping the table a record 18 times. The total exceeds that of the combined totals of the next three in the list.
2. Russia/Soviet Union – 1010
There can actually be a lot of contention when trying to count Russia’s medals. Not only do you have the asterisk of including performances by former Soviet athletes, but you also have the current issues since the doping scandals rocked Russian sport. Nevertheless, Russia has been hugely successful
3. Great Britain – 916
Britain is the only nation on earth to win at least one gold medal at every Summer Olympics since its inception in 1896. Success was hard to come by in the 1980s and 1990s, with the 1996 Olympics being a particularly low point (Team GB finished 36th overall). But there has been a renaissance of late, helped by Team GB’s dominance in cycling, sailing and rowing.
4. France – 750
France’s Olympics success has waned over the last few decades, and it is a far distance from its heyday in the first half of the 20th century. However, as Britain showed, a bounceback is possible. Many saw the 2012 London Olympics as being the catalyst for British success – could the 2024 Paris Olympics do the same for the French?
5. Germany – 652
Like France, Germany’s success has declined in recent years. And like Russia, there is contentiousness over how to record the medals, given the decades of partition between East and West Germany. The performance at Tokyo was one of its worst at the Summer Olympics, yielding just 37 medals.
6. China – 634
The most likely nation to challenge American hegemony, China has become an Olympic superpower in recent years. While it looks like it is a fair distance behind the Americans, you have to appreciate that the Chinese have only really begun to participate since 1984. They are catching up – fast.
7. Italy – 618
Despite winning fewer medals overall than Germany, the Italians have grabbed more gold (217 vs 201), so they lead the Germans in some tables where gold is given precedence. The Italians excel at many sports, but the main source of their medals has been fencing competitions.
8. Australia – 547
Aussies love sport, and you tend to forget that the country has a relatively small population given its prowess. Swimming and athletics have been the main source of the Australians’ medals down the years. The country is also characterised by its consistency of performances.
9. Hungary – 511
Definitely the nation that most readers will be surprised to see on this list, the Hungarians have consistently done well down the years, although the nation did see its high point of success in the middle of the 20th century. Water polo and modern pentathlon are two of the sports where Hungary has more medals than any other nation.
10. Sweden – 503 Most readers would expect to find Japan on this list. But while Japan has won more gold than Sweden (and Australia), the Nordic nation has won more medals overall. Like many of the European nations, Sweden’s record in the early 20th century keeps them high on the list, whereas success has been harder to come by in the 21st century.