Since the first modern Olympic Games in 1896, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) on average increased the total number of medals awarded by 8.6% with each passing Games. In 1896, the IOC awarded 122 medals. Most recently, in the Beijing Games of 2008, the total medal count rose to 956. The chart below shows the substantial increase in total medals awarded throughout the history of the modern Olympic Games.
The IOC expanded the number of medals awarded in two ways: (i) through the inclusion of more women in the competition, and (ii) through the introduction of new events. The first type of expansion has been substantial. The first modern Olympic Games included zero female athletes; in 2008, just over 40% of the Olympic athletes were women (see my previous blog post on this subject). The second type of expansion has also been significant. Many arcane and unusual sports are now included in the Games. Some of the more unusual additions include: trampolining (first introduced in 2000), rhythmic gymnastics (1984), and synchronized swimming (1984).
Have these substantial increases in medals cheapened the value of an Olympic medal? In other words, has the IOC created medal inflation?
As it turns out, the expansion of medals has not kept pace with (i) the number of Olympic athletes competing per medal, or (ii) population growth in participating countries. In the first Games of 1896, 0.42 Olympic medals were awarded per participating athlete. In 2008, 0.09 Olympic medals were awarded per athlete. In terms of the participating countries’ populations, medal expansion is also relatively slow. The chart below shows the medals awarded per 1 million people living in participating countries.
Using the metric of medals per capita, it would appear that the inclusion of additional Olympic events does not cheapen the value of an Olympic medal. Nevertheless, the fact is that medals are rarer and harder to obtain (as measured by medals per capita) than ever before.