Asia at the Olympics

Perspectives Asia #9

The modern Olympic Games are the foremost international sporting events in which thousands of athletes from around the world participate in a variety of competitions. The Summer and Winter Olympic Games are each held once every four years, with an interval of two years between them. The first modern Olympics were held 124 years ago in 1896 in the Panathenaic Stadium in Athens, Greece. At those Games, 241 athletes from 14 nations competed in 43 events. Many economic, political and technological advancements later, a whopping 11,091 athletes from 216 nations were set to compete in 339 events at the latest edition of the Summer Games in Tokyo in 2020. Unfortunately, these Games were postponed to 2021, due to the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic.

The above bar charts show the population in the five continents of the world, as well as the number of Olympics participants and the number of medals won in each continent. It is worth noting that even though 66% of the world population today resides in Asiai, only 12.8% of participants have come from Asia. On the other hand, more than half of the participants (57.2%) have come from Europe, which has only about 10% of the world population. A majority of the 12.8% of Asian participants have come from only three countries: Japan (24%), China (15%), and South Korea (13%).

With respect to medals, Asia has won 1,848, or 9.8% of the total. The majority of these have gone to the same three countries: China with 595 medals (29.1%); Japan with 482 (23.6%); and South Korea with 316 (15.5%). Another interesting point is that, looking at the number of medals won relative to population, Oceania dominates every other continent by a huge margin, with 155 medals per 10 million people (Chart 2). Asia and Africa, where approximately 80% of the world population resides, have each won three medals per 10 million people.

The first athletes from Asia to compete in the Summer Olympic Games were two men who took part in the 1900 Olympics held in Paris. They were Firidun Malkom Khan from Iran and Norman Gilbert Pritchard from Indiaii. Pritchard won two Silver medals for India in the men’s 200m and 200m hurdles events. The rise and fall in the number of participants over the years mirrors the major events of modern history. The Olympic Games were canceled in 1916 due to World War I. The Games were again canceled in 1940 and 1944 due to World War II. Participation dropped at the Montreal Games in 1976 and the Moscow Games in 1980. The slight drop in Asian participation in 1976 was because Iraq and Sri Lanka joined 22 African nations in boycotting the Games, refusing to participate alongside New Zealand, whose rugby team had toured South Africa that summer, breaking an international sports embargo against that country due to its apartheid policy. Participation was further reduced in 1980 when 65 nations boycotted the Moscow Games in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

The first woman from Asia to participate in the Olympics was Nora Margaret Polley at the 1924 Games held in Paris. She represented India in tennis. She was both the first and the only woman from Asia to participate that year. Women’s participation rose rapidly after the 1980 Moscow Games, and by 2016, when the Games were held in Rio de Janeiro, the number of women athletes, at 892 (47.8%), was nearly equal to the number of men, at 975 (52.2%).

The first Winter Olympics were held in 1924 in Chamonix, France, where 258 athletes from 16 nations competed in 16 events. Among them were eight men from Asia. A group of seven men from India and one from Nepal, named Tejbir Bura, participated as a team in the mixed alpinism event and won a Gold medal! Interestingly, it is the only Gold medal that Nepal has ever won. However, since the medal was awarded to the mixed team, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) doesn’t recognize it as an official medal of the National Olympic Committee (NOC) of Nepal.

The first woman to participate in the Winter Olympics from Asia was Etsuko Inada in 1936, at the Games held in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. She represented Japan in figure skating, and was only 12 years old!

It should be noted that, over the years, the participation of Asian countries in the Winter Olympics has steadily increased as well. The participation dropped a bit at the 1994 Games in Lillehammer, Norway, as those were the first Games at which stricter qualifying standards were implemented. However, the number of athletes from Asia jumped from 144 in 1994 to 335 at the very next Games in 1998 in Nagano, Japan. A key reason for the rise was the addition of new sports including women’s ice hockey, curling and snowboarding. Just as in the Summer Olympics, by the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, the number of men and women participants had evened out, with 169 men (53.1%) and 149 women (46.9%) competing.

At first, the Winter Olympics were held in the same year as the Summer Olympics. But in 1986 the IOC voted to change the schedule and hold the competitions two years apart. This decision was officially endorsed in 1992 by the IOC, which was then headed by Juan Antonio Samaranch. Jason Stallman, a sports editor at The New York Times, said: “It (the separation) gave the Winter Games a chance to shine on their own. They had been somewhat overshadowed by the mighty Summer Games and it allowed for increased TV coverage, which means massive amounts of money for the IOC.” Accordingly, the 1994 Games at Lillehammer, Norway, became the first Winter Games to be held separately from the Summer Games.

The above chart shows the number of Gold, Silver and Bronze medals won by Asian countries at the 2016 Summer Olympics. Out of the 45 countries that are a part of Asia today, 19 of them won medals in 2016. China, Japan and South Korea dominated the medals count, as always, claiming 132 medals, or 64.7%, of the total won by Asian countries. Kazakhstan won 18 medals, while Uzbekistan won 13. The rest of the countries won medals in single digits.  

In the interactive version of this article, use the dropdown Year and City to select any of the other Olympic Games since 1896.  Similarly, use the other dropdowns to select the Continent, Season, Category or Sport to find each country’s rank.


i The countries are categorized according to the Association of National Olympic Committees (ANOC). Countries which are no longer a part of the modern world are categorized according to United Nations Geoscheme classification.

ii Olympic historians separate Indian results from British ones despite India's lack of independence before 1947.

Individual Olympic Athletes (IOA) are athletes who have competed under the Olympic Flag because of political transitions, international sanctions or suspensions of National Olympic Committees (NOCs).

Refugee Olympics Team (ROT) is a part of the Individual Olympic Athletes (IOA) group.

Historic identities of teams have been retained. For example, medals won by teams competing under the flag of the Soviet Union are counted separately from those won by teams under the flag of Russia.

The data covers all the modern Olympic Games (Summer and Winter) from 1896 in Athens till 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.