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Which country is best in the world at sport? And which is best for its size?
To find out, I combined the historical results of summer and winter Olympics, of world cups in several sports, and of popular individual sports. Some of the data go back more than a century.
My methodology is highly questionable. I started with the men’s world cups in biggish sports that have seldom or never commanded Olympic medals. I ranked the top five countries in these sports, based first on world titles won, and then on finishes in the final four. I gave the best country five points, the second four, the third three, and so on. That produced these totals:
Rugby union: Australia 5, New Zealand 4, England 3, South Africa 2, France 1.
Karate (counting team events only): Japan 5, France 4, England 3, Spain 2, Italy and Turkey 1 each.
Cricket: Australia 5, West Indies 4, India 3, Pakistan 2, Sri Lanka 1.
Baseball was trickier. Historically the US dominates the sport. However, only this year did it send its best players to the world cup. The US ranks third all-time in the event. But I placed it first for baseball, producing this ranking: US 5, Cuba 4, Venezuela 3, Colombia 2, South Korea 1.
Basketball is an Olympic event. However, as the world’s second-most popular team game, it deserves additional input in this quest. I therefore added the basketball world cup’s results. Again the US rarely fielded its best players, and historically ranks second behind (the former) Yugoslavia. But using common sense I placed the US first here, too, producing this ranking: US 5, Yugoslavia 4, USSR 3, Brazil 2, Argentina 1. Favouring the US in baseball and basketball did not affect the outcome of my quest.
The only women’s world cup I counted was soccer. Women’s soccer is an Olympic event too, but popular enough to merit more input. The rankings: US 5, Norway and Germany 4 each, Sweden 2, China 1.
I also measured popular individual sports that are seldom or never represented in the Olympics. I rewarded countries for their citizens’ triumphs. In tennis I counted men’s and women’s grand-slam tournaments – tennis being a rare sport in that it is played widely by women. I only used results from the “Open era”, starting in 1968, when tennis became very competitive. The men’s rankings: US 5, Sweden 4, Australia 3, (the former) Czechoslovakia 2, Spain and Switzerland 1 each. For women: US 5, Germany 4, Australia 3, Yugoslavia 2, France 1.
In golf, I measured the men’s majors: US 5, UK (including all four home countries) 4, South Africa 3, Australia 2, Spain 1. In chess I added up the years that each country provided the world champion: USSR/Russia 5, Germany 4, France 3, US 2, Cuba 1. In cycling, I counted victories in the Tour de France, more prestigious than the world championship: France 5, Belgium 4, US 3, Italy 2, Spain 1.
In motor racing, I chose the most prestigious competition, Formula One, thus discriminating against the US which prefers its own races. I counted world championships by citizenship. The rankings: UK 5, Brazil 4, Germany 3, Argentina 2, France, Australia and Austria 1 each.
Then I added the big three events. In the last Summer Olympics, medals were awarded in 28 sports. Many of these were tiny, such as archery or kayaking. Still, I gave the summer games 10 times the weighting of world cups. Because the whole planet competes in the Olympics – unlike, say, in baseball or cricket – I rewarded the top 10 rather than five countries in the all-time medals table. The ranking: US 50 points, USSR/Russia 40, UK 30, France 20, Italy 10, Hungary 8, East Germany 6, Germany 4, Sweden 2, Australia 1.
I gave the Winter Olympics three times the weighting of a world cup. Because few countries play winter sports, I rewarded only the top five medal winners: Norway 15, US 12, USSR/Russia 9, Germany 6, Austria 3.
Finally, the football world cup. Football is an Olympic sport, but also the planet’s most popular game. I gave its world cup six times the weighting of other world cups, and rewarded the top 10 countries in the all-time points table. The ranking: Brazil 30, Germany 24, Italy 18, Argentina 12, England 6, France 5, Spain 4, Sweden 3, Netherlands 2, Russia/USSR 1.
The official Kuper title for best sports country goes to the US. Its 92 points are awesome given that I omitted its favourite sport, American football, because nobody else plays it.
Second is the USSR/Russia with 58 points, albeit won mostly when it was a multinational empire. Third is UK/England with 51 points, and fourth Germany on 45. But if we credit Germany with East Germany’s Olympic medals, then the united country jumps to second place overall with 77 points. Next come France (40), Brazil (36), Italy (31) and Australia (20). Australia did brilliantly given that I ignored its prowess at Australian rules football and rugby league. Brazil was best developing country, and would have been even if it did not play football. India and China are the biggest flops given their size.
But which country is world champion per capita? It is Norway, with more than four points for every million of its 4.6m inhabitants. The country outscores all of Africa and Asia (excluding Oceania) put together. Significantly, Norway also tops the United Nations’ human development index, in which Australia, the other most sporting smaller country, comes third. The richer you are, the better you tend to be at sport.
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