However it is now undoubtedly the case that the number of medals a country wins is seen as a true a measure of a nation´s sporting power.
A new study published in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance looks at the recent trends in Olympic medal winning and why some countries are more successful than others.
Medal counts are the object of intense scrutiny after every Olympiad and most countries celebrate any medal with national glee, since 60% of competing countries will win none.
At the 2012 London Games, 10% of the competing countries won 75% of all medals.
Only a few countries such as the USA, China, Russia, Great Britain and Germany possess the combination of large population, diverse sports culture, rich economy, favorable seasonal conditions, national coaching expertise and well-developed facilities infrastructure to make themselves podium candidates in almost all Summer Olympics sports.
Despite this concentration among a few countries, more nations are winning more medals now than 20 years ago, thanks in part to athlete-support and development programmes being introduced around the world.
The differences in support infrastructure among the top 40 Olympic countries have also narrowed and in addition, some “sleeping giants” such as India and Brazil are awakening as their national standards of living and economic conditions improve.
Small strong sporting countries like Norway are typified by fairly large variation in medal results from Olympiad to Olympiad and a high concentration of results in a few sports.
Medal conversion, podium placements relative to top 8 placements, may provide a measure of the competitiveness of athlete-support programmes in this international zero sum game where the cost of winning Olympic gold keeps rising whether measured in dollars or human capital.
But for smaller, less well resourced countries the fundamental strategic decision is how broadly to spread their resources in the pursuit of Olympic medals.
The report concludes that in high technology, high investment sports such as cycling or sailing, the cost of gold may be too high and for them the best route to Olympic medal success is to concentrate their resources into those sports in which they have traditionally excelled.