What conclusions can we draw from these numbers? One is that in certain instances, the results on this basis can yield seemingly random results. A small or poor country could produce a single champion and feature brilliantly on these tables. That country may further boast a champion by some quirk of ancestry or migration – a person may emigrate from that country at a very young age, become proficient in a sport in a new country and then compete for his or her country of birth.
Or take the case of small but wealthy Bahrain, whose gold medal came in the men’s 1500m thanks to Rashid Ramzi. Ramzi was born Moroccan and afterwards said he still considered himself Moroccan,but had later emigrated to Bahrain. Morocco of course is a country with a fine middle distance tradition, going back to Said Aouita in the 1980s.
These “funnies” aside, there are some clear messages to be drawn from this for countries wishing to make a good show for themselves. One is specialisation: countries should concentrate their efforts on the disciplines or group of disciplines in which they have the culture and potential to perform, and can allocate scarce resources to that group of disciplines. Indeed, there may be more glory for a nation that dominates a handful of high profile events than one that garners medals across a range of lower profile sports (with fewer television viewers).
In the past, some countries – notably those in the Soviet bloc – achieved success through an over-allocation of resources towards sporting success, combined with an authoritarian government that forced young athletes into demanding training programmes and in many instances appeared to encourage the use of banned substances.
The collapse of communism in these countries has thankfully removed the social engineering element from sports policy, though many developed countries still allocate large resources towards promoting excellence: a good example is Australia, which has achieved remarkable success across a range of sports through state-funded sports academies.
Another is that culture and genetic attributes may play a big part. The continued performance of the smaller former Soviet republics in events like weightlifting in the years after the breakup of the Soviet Union (often despite straitened economic conditions in those countries) illustrates this well. These countries continue to deliver solid performances in the Olympic Games, long after the demise communist regimes that pushed sporting excellence at all expense.
A range of examples, from Lithuania in basketball (a small country that regularly features in the top group of nations in a truly world sport), to Malaysia in badminton and New Zealand in rugby, show how a tradition in a sport can overcome disadvantages.
Further examples can be found in athletics, especially in the cases of the Caribbean states in the sprint events, and East African countries like Kenya and Ethiopia in the middle and long distance events. Here, genetics may play a role. Sprinters of West African stock - and especially the West African diaspora in the US and the Caribbean - have a long tradition of Olympic overachievement, from Jesse Owens to Edwin Moses and to Usain Bolt in more recent years. It is surely only a matter of time before a West African country produces a champion in the 100 metre event.
Ethiopia and particularly Kenya have dominated the middle and long distances in a similar way. Considering that Kenya's star distance athletes are drawn mostly from a small section of the population, the Kalenjin ethnic group who make up less than 10% of the population, this outperformance is even more remarkable.
The secret of Kenyan success has long occupied the attention of sports scientists; it would appear that the combination of diet, living at high altitude over a large number of generations and other genetic factors has created just the right permutation of traits to produce the perfect middle distance athlete.
Genetic factors are nothing though if not combined with societal factors, such as a tradition of participation in a certain sport, and role that a competitive peer group and role models can play. Seeing one’s countrymen succeeding on the biggest stage can inspire talented youngsters to take up the sport and to train hard.
Working and training in a successful group can work wonders in promoting hard work, new ideas and motivation to succeed. This is as true in sports as it is in arts, literature, business, medicine and many other fields of human endeavour. Former champions and near champions return as coaches and mentors to inspire a new generation to succeed.
Here we must also acknowledge the role of the US university system in helping to foster excellence in sport and contributing to the glory of many smaller countries through sports scholarships. Many of the world’s best athletes and swimmers (and many other sports besides) have honed their talents at US universities, working in highly competitive training groups and under top coaches.
There can be no doubt that these factors have contributed to the success of Kenya and Jamaica in their respective disciplines. While Usain Bolt dominated the sprints in Beijing, the rest of the Jamaican sprint team were high quality athletes as well.
This holds some important lessons for South Africa if it is to improve on its dismal tallies (on any measure) in future Games. Lessons can also be learned from golf, a global sport in which South Africa can be rightly said to over achieve. That overachievement arose not by pure chance but through the example of the likes of Gary Player and Ernie Els, who not only inspired many young men to take up the sport but also have actively promoted and encouraged talented young players and in recent years has produced the likes of Charl Schwartzel and Louis Oosthuizen.
Transferring this model of success into a major Olympic sport is not easy, but the longer track events could be a good start. South Africa has many very talented long distance athletes, but their talents tend to be channeled into ultramarathons (a uniquely South African passion). If these can be channeled into events like the 5 000m and 10 000m or the marathon (where SA has had some Olympic success – who can forget Josiah Thugwane’s gold medal performance in Atlanta in 1996?), then we could well enjoy the fruits of larger medal tallies in years to come.