The first issue is that the games are finite; they run for 16 days. It's not realistic to let too many participants into the field, since the overloaded competitions would be impossible to squeeze in. The field must be weeded before athletes are admitted to the games. That being said, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) fosters a "Sport for All" ideal, which is one of three main tenets of its concept of Olympism. The IOC negotiates with each country's National Olympic Committee (NOC) to determine how many participants can compete.
So even prosperous nations with loads of Olympic-caliber athletes have limits in order to allow poorer countries with more diminutive pools of qualified athletes the chance to compete [source: Bernard and Busse]. Sport for All, in essence, means that all people, regardless of creed, color or gender, should be welcomed within the international world of athletics and share in the benefits of camaraderie and mutual respect.
Now, it's a given that the host country typically has an advantage -- they'll win about 2 percent more medals just for having the games on their turf. Reasons for this benefit include reduced travel costs, hometown enthusiasm and venues that cater more specifically to their athletes' needs. And if the Olympics are heavily boycotted, that success can leap to almost 20 percent [source: Bernard and Busse].
But you can take it from the angle of gross domestic product (GDP) per capita, too. A team's overall sponsorship funding, specialized training facilities and coaching personnel affect how many athletes can train, and afford, to participate in the games. Many potential Olympians deal with constraints that don't simply take into account athletic merit alone. So if you look at GDP versus population size, a low GDP with a high population will negatively affect medal count. Interestingly, however, in the case of countries with similar GDPs, one with a high per capita income but a low population will tend to fare as well as a country with a low per capita income and a large population [source: Bernard and Busse].
But let's dig deeper. Apart from how many athletes per country circle the stadium during the opening ceremonies -- and how wealthy or impoverished their nations are -- what's another way to view the success of those athletes and the countries they represent?