How the Healthiest Nations Stack Up at the Olympics

The 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro raised a lot of questions about public health, including some we may not have expected. Are healthier nations more successful in international athletic competitions? What does it really mean to be healthy? Though there are variety of answers, the following graphic explores one lens through which to view athletic success and health: the all-time Summer Olympic medal counts and rankings on the United Nations’ Human Development Index (HDI), which determines an aggregate measure of a nation’s health based on life expectancy, education and income per capita.

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What the HDI Tells Us about Health

The HDI does not encompass all the indicators of health, but it does serve as an exploration into the multifaceted definition of health and human quality of life, both of which influence the circumstances that allow countries to yield successful athletes.

When comparing medal counts to the HDI, a trend emerges. The nations with at least 15 medals fall above the global average HDI ranking of 0.776, with the exception of China and Brazil. In addition, all members of the Group of Eight (G8) Industrialized Nations finished within the top 10 of the Olympic medal count. This does not mean that the HDI predicts Olympic success, but it does illustrate one of the many benefits of a nation investing in its citizens’ health.

Additionally, countries ranking far below the global HDI average earned few medals in comparison to those that rank highly. This included Burundi, Niger and Ivory Coast, each of which earned on medal this year.

On the other hand, Kenya, South Africa and Ethiopia won 13, 10 and 8 medals, respectively, despite rankings below the global average. However, these nations sent very few athletes to the Olympics in comparison to top-performing countries. With a high count of medals-per-athlete, these three nations illustrate that in cases where resources are limited, investing in fewer, more promising athletes can be more effective than sending hundreds of athletes to compete.

Though there is no HDI ranking available, Kosovo took home its first medal in the nation’s history. This is the first year Kosovo participated in the Olympics as an independent country, and it sent eight athletes – one of whom won gold – a rate of medals-per-athlete that also rivals many top-performing countries.

Perceptions vs. Reality with the HDI 

By comparing countries to the global average, the HDI helps countries see how well their policies are unlocking the potential of their citizens. One striking example is China, which has the world’s second-largest economy and second-highest medal count for 2016, falls just below the global HDI average. This indicates that its policies are greatly enriching its economy, but neglecting the health, education and earning potential of many in its population.

The HDI can also align our perceptions of global health with the reality in those countries. The 2016 Olympics put a spotlight on the conditions in Brazil, drawing attention to some of the nation’s most serious health-related and socioeconomic issues. Viewing Brazil on the HDI allows us to contextualize its current state with the global standard and develop a more informed understanding of the reality of the nation’s public health.

Do Healthier Nations Really Win More Medals?

After the Olympics, it is easy to associate winning countries with success and prestige, but an examination of the meaning behind human development yields a better understanding of the circumstances. The HDI, which aggregates four indicators from three key dimensions, measures success in terms of how well nations are able to facilitate well-being for their people, rather than simply their economies (or their international athletic programs). While this index does not take into account other important national factors like inequality, gender disparity and poverty levels, it helps show whether a population is healthy, educated and has a decent standard of living. When combined, these dimensions can indicate if a nation is in a good position to develop its people.

The Olympics help us consider the ways in which social determinants affect health on an international scale, and the games reveal the scope of public health as it intersects with social, economic and clinical landscapes. Though expanding human development is a tall order for health care professionals, it is necessary to keep in mind when implementing daily practices.

We would love to hear your thoughts about the HDI, a nurse practitioner’s role in making a nation healthier, or factors that have impacted the health of your community that we missed in this post. Comment below or on social media by tweeting @NursingatUSC.