Warren Hays and Devin McCarthy
2012 Olympics Final Medal Count / Christian Science Monitor
The American news media made constant note of the United States’ medal count during the 2012 London Olympics, often comparing the count to that of our largest rival in medals, the People’s Republic of China. In the end, Americans took home 104 total medals including 46 gold, while Chinese athletes managed 87 medals, of which 38 were gold. The London games marked the fifth straight Olympiad, beginning with the 1996 games, that the United States led in the number of both gold medals and total medals. Commentators insinuated that this unofficial marker of national strength places the United States as the dominant Olympic competitor in the world as of 2012, with China, Great Britain, Russia, and Germany rounding out the top five.

American athletes are to be applauded for their performances, of course, but this simple tally by itself does not account for a number of exogenous factors that strongly affected how each country fared in the Olympics. There are several ways to meddle with the medal count that would provide different perspectives on which nations really performed best at the Olympics.

As one example, The Economist, before this year’s Games, looked at national success over time based on the number of medals per competitor. It found that the former East Germany was the most successful nation by this measure, with the Soviet Union second and the United States third. Guatemala had the most disappointing Olympic history, sending 254 competitors without ever taking home a single medal.

Simon Forsyth of Australia’s University of Queensland considered a nation’s population in weighting the medal count. In the number of medals per capita, or the proportion of medals to the country’s population, the Caribbean island country of Grenada leads the pack. Although the country won just one Olympic medal, it has a population of only 104,000; the U.S., in contrast, has nearly three million citizens for every medal that it won. By the medals per capita barometer, Grenada is followed by three fellow Caribbean nations – Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago, and the Bahamas – with New Zealand taking fifth place. The United States comes in at 50th, and China is 63rd.

Mr. Forsyth also considered medals per Gross Domestic Product (GDP) under the assumption that economic strength correlates well with indicators of national health and therefore athletic prowess. Grenada and Jamaica again take the top two spots in that order, followed by Mongolia and Georgia in third and fourth place, while the United States is 67th.

The Atlantic Magazine has published two simple charts in which it lists medals won on the vertical access and two horizontal axes – one with population and the other with GDP. Social Europe Journal joined the Atlantic in analyzing what factors are most likely to forecast medal count success, with “home country” advantage and past performance joining population and GDP as the key factors. According to the Journal, “everything else – different training structures, better equipment, and so forth – is pretty much noise.”

The Wall Street Journal’'s Tony Olivero wondered how the Olympic medal count would work if it were scored like the Electoral College, treating sports like the winner-take-all states in our presidential elections. In his “proposal,” the nation that won the plurality of medals in a sport would win all the medals for that sport in the final medal count. Like the Electoral College itself, though, this system has the flaw that it leaves many countries and athletes without representation in the medal count if they are in the minority in their sports.

A better American political analogy on which to base a medal count system might the U.S. Senate. Aside from the enormous demographic and economic differences among countries competing at the Olympics, another issue with the straightforward medal count is that there are more medals awarded in some sports than others. The United States dominates Olympic swimming, which holds 34 total events between men’s and women’s competitions, whereas China has historically done well in table tennis, although only four medals are awarded in a single Olympiad. Furthermore, some sports are team events that may result in only a single medal being counted, on par with any event awarded in an individual competition. Situations such as these give undue weight to countries with dominant individual competitors, such as Michael Phelps of the United States in his many swimming events, and marginalize nations and individuals competing in sports with few events. The U.S. does not get appropriately rewarded for the success of its basketball teams in the medal count, for instance.

One way to address the problem of different sports having unequal weight is to simply have a medal count in which every sport is worth a fixed number of “points”—say, nine points per sport. Those points could be split among gold, silver and bronze winners (five points for gold, three points for silver, and one point for bronze). That way if the U.S. won half of all swimming medals, they would only win roughly 4.5 points for the swimming “event.” The U.S. would also get 5 points for winning the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments. Such a system, while more complex and less intuitive than the medal count, would treat sports much more equally than the current predominant method. Like the Senate, it would give sports equal representation in the medal count regardless of the "population" of their events.
The medal count is not technically a “rule” of the Olympics, but it is an unwritten rule of the media’s Olympics coverage. There is no official method, nor should there be, in determining who “won” an Olympiad and how the countries objectively rank against one another. The Olympics are intended to be an open gathering of the world’s best athletes to compete in fair competition and promote mutual understanding, and the games accomplish just that. Those who choose to rank the nations by Olympic success will persist in doing so, however, and thus credit should be given to those nations who do well in terms of more than just simple dominance of the total medal count. It also make following the Olympics that much more interesting – and gives more nations a spot on the final podium.
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