Sports are a funny thing, especially on an international stage. All sorts of sappy lines have been spilled about international sports – that they are a base of the global community, they foster goodwill between nations, they celebrate the world coming together. Let’s cut to the chase – sports were originally a pretty solid tool to develop better, stronger, faster soldiers, at least before automation and weaponry closed the gap. Even look at the word which denotes a follower or supporter of a team – ‘fan’. That word, of course, is short for ‘fanatic’, which describes excessive devotion to something – whether religion, politics, or yes… sports. Yes, if international sports is good for one thing – it’s as a proxy for war. I’d much rather Ireland and Great Britain battled it out on a track than a battlefield. Same goes for China and the US, the ultimate rivalry of the last two summer games.
In war, there are definite winners and losers. Sports, on the other hand, inspire arguments. The question I want to explore today is “who won the 2012 Olympics?”.
National Pride and Politics
Winning medals is a point of national pride stretching back almost to the beginning of the modern games – for political, moral, and yes, plain old bragging reasons. Witness our own history – cheated out of a gold medal in basketball in 1972, members of that team who are still alive refuse to accept the silver. Or on the positive side, Jesse Owens, a black American track superstar, embarrassing Nazi Germany by winning 4 gold medals on their turf in 1936. And that’s just the US – the games have inspired everything from betting scandals to movies about Jamaican bobsledders. Like an internationally recognized Superbowl – or even a World Cup that Americans care about – the Olympics is a shared worldwide event that, in a word, matters.
How much does it matter? Enough that medal count is a political tool used by socialist, communist, social democratic and democratic countries alike (and all other forms). Witness three socialist and communist countries in the past/present – the U.S.S.R., China, and the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) – who won medals to ‘prove’ the inherent superiority of their political systems. 2 of the three were also the creators of some of the most advanced doping regimens of all time. And yes, I’m not so naive to think that doping isn’t an issue today (but I’ll reserve judgement until someone gets caught).
All that said, simply measuring a company’s success by their medal count or the number of gold medals is a bit of a stretch. Why should Kuwait, a small country of 3.5 million people, be measured against the United States or China? Los Angeles alone, without counting the surrounding valley and metro area, has 3.8 million people.
Making the Metrics Fair
So the first of the scaled, ‘fair’ metrics is the number of medals per capita. If the US gets 100 medals and Kuwait gets 1, that should be about even. Still, you want to reward higher medals – silver and gold should be valued above bronze in some manner. Now, I say this as a curious observer – I’m certainly no Olympic athlete, with my best performance in the 100 meter being in the low 12s. That time hasn’t been competitive since 1896.
Moving on, we want to value ‘higher’ medals more than ‘lower’ medals. Treating all medals the same may look good in a medal count table, but it’s hard to argue that being the third best in the world at something equals being the best. Still not convinced? Consider that in many events, the number of entrants are capped. How is it fair to measure total medal count in gymnastics, say, where the individual events are limited to two people per country? Look at Jordan Wieber – she was 4th ranked in the world on the all around, yet had to sit it out since her teammates were #1 and #2. Sure, it’s an unfair rule – but I understand that a final consisting of 2 or 3 countries would be boring. Also look at her teammate McKayla Maroney whose silver medal scowl launched 1,000 meme images. I doubt she would be so disappointed in a gold.
So, how about a ‘gold medals per capita’ measure? Better, certainly. The obvious issues, other than discounting silvers and bronzes, is also in the selection process. A single gold doesn’t prove dominance. Consider the number of swimming events versus the number of games requires to win a medal in a team event. And, let’s say that theoretically, that some team’s backup could also win gold? That’s exactly the case in Women’s Beach volleyball, and this metric ignores the domination of that sport by the US. Additionally, it is biased towards small countries, which may have a single athlete win multiple gold medals, and not winning medals in other games.
Those aren’t even the only ways to ‘make the metrics fair’. The Wall Street Journal even touched on a few more esoteric ones – medals per dollars of GDP, anyone? Even with an attempt to scale the statistics, you come to some interesting stats – for example, the top 10% of countries won 52.3% of the medals. Redistribution, anyone?
What to do, what to do!? Basically, I just showed you that there is no good argument to determine which country did the best at the Olympics. Funny, huh? Let that be my argument to you then – let the arguments continue!
Who won the 2012 games? Is it as simple as gold medals or total medals? Great Britain vs. Russia… which one would you rather be, medal count wise?