In which countries did Paralympians outperform Olympians?

Clockwise from left: China's Zheng Tao, South Africa's Oscar Pistorius and Brazil's Neymar

It's been hailed by the organisers as the greatest Paralympic Games ever, but which teams of Paralympians outperformed their Olympian compatriots? And why did the US Paralympic team only manage sixth?

The United States topped the Olympic Games league table with 46 gold medals, but they won about a third fewer in the Paralympics - 31, placing them outside the top five, in sixth place.

More or Less: Behind the stats

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This performance is quite a puzzle, because the US has two of the big vital ingredients for success - wealth and a large population.

Population and Gross Domestic Product (GDP) explain about 53% of a nation's a success in the Olympic Games, and more than 60% in the Paralympic Games, according to the calculations of Simon Shibli, a professor of sport management at Sheffield Hallam University in the UK.

A big population means a big pool of talent to fish from, and wealth means good healthcare and the money to spend on sports training and facilities.

But a further puzzle is that, if you look at the historical figures, you see the US is actually top of the all-time Paralympic gold medal league table.

Gold medal top 10s

Paralympics 2012 Olympics 2012 All-time Paralympics

China

95

USA

46

USA

696

Russia

36

China

38

GB

519

GB

34

GB

29

Canada

366

Ukraine

32

Russia

24

France

326

Australia

32

South Korea

13

Australia

323

USA

31

Germany

11

W Germany

300

Brazil

21

France

11

Netherlands

255

Germany

18

Italy

8

Poland

250

Poland

14

Hungary

8

China

237

Netherlands, Iran

10

Australia, Japan, Kazakhstan

7

Sweden

217

This can partly be explained by the fact the US dominated in the 1980s, when there were twice as many medals to win. In the 1984 Paralympics there were 345 gold medals for swimming, alone. There were 447 gold medals for athletics. Now there are only 503 gold medals in total, compared to 973 then.

Bar chart showing nations' performance in Paralympics
  • Unit is % share of Paralympic medals divided by % share of Olympic medals
  • Austria, Nigeria and Algeria won many more Paralympic medals than Olympic medals
  • Kazakhstan and North Korea won several Olympic medals but no Paralympic medals

In the last few games, the US Paralympic ranking has failed to match its Olympic ranking. So what's changed? The fact that more countries are taking part, according to Shibli, which means the economic law of supply and demand comes into play.

"The demand for success increases as more nations invest money in their elite sports systems and so the price of those medals will increase," he says.

"And what's happening is that, as more nations invest and take part in that global sporting arms race, it makes it difficult for the previously dominant nations to maintain their share of the medals."

It surely won't have escaped the notice of the US that China is top of the medals table with 95 golds - a cool 59 gold medals clear of the second-placed Russian Federation.

China's Paralympic story is the opposite of the US's. It didn't used to do particularly well. It first entered in 1984 and came 28th. Four years later, the Paralympics was first held at the same venue as the Olympics, and China's performance strengthened from then on.

By the year 2000, it was sixth. Then a year later, it was announced that Beijing had got the 2008 games and in 2004 in Athens, China topped the medals table. It has stayed there ever since.

"China does even better, I think, in the Paralympic Games than in the Olympic Games," says Shibli, who has analysed the proportion of available medals.

"What you've got is the world's largest population at 1.3bn, so a bigger talent pool, and a growing GDP - probably the fastest-growing GDP for a developing nation, and you've also got a government which is very determined to show the new China to the globe."

According to US sports journalist Jim Ferstle, the country has had a very different attitude to the Paralympics.

Did the US under-perform?

The US is near where we thought it would be, but there is a disparity between Olympic and Paralympic athletes and we're working to bridge that gap. Some of the Paralympians train full-time but they have to provide the resources themselves. They receive a small amount annually, from private contributions, significantly under Ā£10,000 and that isn't enough to support their living expenses, travel and training full-time.

We're definitely making strides in developing programmes in communities to reach out to physical educators and high school coaches to help us reach and identify individuals who would qualify for Paralympic competition. I don't think anyone would be satisfied that we're doing anything but scratching the surface, but this is where increased media coverage would be incredibly helpful.

"It isn't a priority, they don't get the funding, they don't get the attention and they aren't sold the same way the Olympics are," he says.

"They have training centres and training programmes all over the country for able-bodied athletes but they don't have those for Paralympians.

"They pop up now and then, but it's seen as these people are being helped out with their disability - they're not being trained to be athletes."

Meanwhile the US TV broadcaster NBC has been criticised for failing to show any live TV coverage of the Paralympic games.

The US Paralympic committee has told the BBC that it is "very aware of the need to focus on Paralympic grassroots developmentā€¦ In too many events at these Games, the US doesn't have athletes entered to even compete for a medal."

And it says a Paralympics sports programme has been set up to address this, operating across the nation in nearly 200 deprived areas.

There are other countries which are doing better in the Paralympics than in the Olympics.

Ireland exceeds expectations

Jason Smyth

"I am delighted that the Paralympic team [including Jason Smyth, above] has exceeded its medal targets by a considerable margin, sixteen medals is an astonishing achievement. The combined efforts and success of our Olympic and Paralympic athletes makes all of us feel so proud and we are indebted to them."

Ireland President Michael Higgins

Take Nigeria - no medals in the Olympics but 12 medals (six of them gold) in the Paralympics. And Nigeria's GDP per capita is around seven times smaller than Mexico's, which also got six golds. Its comparative spending on healthcare is 10 times smaller.

"What's probably not appreciated fully about that nation is that it's got a population of about 160m," says Shibli.

"So they've got quite a significant pool from which to fish for talent."

He speculates that Nigeria may prioritise its Paralympic team, because you can get more wins for less money.

Rwanda, Bosnia Herzegovina, Iran and Iraq also stand out - they've all entered more athletes into the Paralympics than the Olympics.

And for Iran this paid off, as they finished joint 10th in the final medals table.

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