Pitting SEC States Against Each Other in the Olympics

Pole vaulter Earl Bell is in the middle of any debate on Arkansas’ most accomplished Olympian.
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/BENJAMIN KRAIN 7.10.00

 In Southeastern Conference territory, competition is a way of life. Year after year, SEC sports programs spew jetstreams of cash to beat each other on and off the field. Stadia, facilities, coaches’ salaries, TV contracts just keep getting bigger and better. There’s really no choice. Snazzy helicopters, after all, can only do so much to lure the big-time recruits which make college sports’ premier conference go round.

With the Summer Olympics opening ceremony this Friday, though, now is a good time to figure out which SEC state is top dog in terms of all-around athletic talent. For this exercise, we’ll tear down institutional walls which divide states. No Auburn/Alabama or MSU/Ole Miss delineations here. We only care about state borders, and the  Olympians who grew up between them.

With this in mind, it turns out the biggest states have produced the most gold medalists at all modern summer Olympic Games since 1896. Not a surprise.

It gets interesting, however, when examining the numbers on a per capita basis:

Breaking Down SEC states’ # of Gold Medalists Per Capita



# of Gold Medalists

2010 Population

# People per Gold Medalist

Most Impressive Olympians?

1 Mississippi 22 2.97 million 135,000 Calvin Smith, Ralph Boston
2 Missouri 31 5.99 million 193,226 Henry Iba, Helen Stephens
3 Arkansas 14 2.92 million 208,571 Earl Bell, Scottie Pippen
4 Louisiana 21 4.53 million 215,714 Rod Milburn, Karl Malone
5 Kentucky 16 4.34 million 271,250 Muhammad Ali, Mary Meagher
6 Alabama 17 4.7 million 276,471 Harvey Glance, Jennifer Chandler
7 Georgia 35 9.69 million 276,857 Gwen Torrence, Angelo Taylor
8 Texas 72 25.15 million 349,306 Babe Zaharias, Michael Johnson
9 South Carolina 12 4.63 million 385,833 Joe Frazier, Katrina McClain
10 Florida `43 18.80 million 437,209 Bob Hayes, Rowdy Gaines
11 Tennessee 11 6.35 million 577,273 Wilma Rudolph, Tracy Caulkins

Is it surprising the smaller states tend to produce more elite athletes on a per capita basis? Could this be partly due to athletes in those states getting more individual coaching than athletes from areas with larger populations?

Who do you think are the two or three greatest Olympians from these states? I’m sure a lot of that judgment boils down to the emphasis put on individual vs. team sports, and if the traditional sports (e.g. track and field, swimming, box) are valued more than their more modern brethren (BMX racing, judo).

Pole vaulter Earl Bell may have the most accomplished Olympic career of any native Arkansan. The Jonesboro native competed in three Olympics, finishing sixth (1976), third (1984)and fourth (1988). There’s an extremely good chance he would have also medaled  in the 1980 Moscow Olympics had the Americans participated.

Hamburg native Scottie Pippen, on the other hand, never had to compete in any individual sports (although he likely was athletic enough to competed at an elite level in the 400 meters or long jump, insinuates Sports Illustrated writer Jack McCallum). Still, the basketball star won two gold medals as vital contributor on the 1992 and 1996 Dream Teams.

Other Arkansans who deserve a place in this discussion include Bill Carr, Eddie Hamm and Clyde Scott, whose #12 became one of only two football Razorbacks’ numbers retired by the UA.

More comments & nifty graphic in republished version here.

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