The Olympic Medal (Re)Count
Have you been keeping an eye on the Vancouver Winter Olympics medal tally? Has it crossed your mind that simply counting medals might not be the best measure of a nation’s Olympic success or failure? Have you longed for a new way to compare - oh – let’s say, former Soviet state Latvia’s Olympic prowess versus that of East Asian “tiger” South Korea?
Inspired in part by listening to friends complain about Olympic rankings – friends who don’t hail from a relatively wealthy country with a 300 million plus population that’s currently topping the medal charts — I’ve taken another look at the Olympic medal count.
The logic of those folks, hailing from elsewhere, is that the “winner” of the medal count should be the country with the highest number of medals and the smallest population – proving that it has the most skilled athletes amongst the same sized pool of people. Or the “winner” is the nation with the highest number of medals and the lowest Gross Domestic Product per capita, proving that it is innate talent - and not resources — that make the athlete.
So let’s look at how Gross Domestic Product per capita and population play into the Olympic games.
First, there is the straightforward medal count – courtesy of the New York Times, (as of Tuesday morning, February 23, 2010.)
The US is in the lead, with respectable showings by Germany, Norway, Russia and Canada.
|GDP||GDP per capita|
|RANKING||Country||Gold||Silver||Bronze||Total||per Capita||per Medal|
China, previously ranked number 11, now soars into top place, while Germany and the United States hold their own at 2nd and 3rd place, respectively.
You gotta love mild mannered, polite Canada. Its ranking – a solid fifth – hasn’t changed. This is a country that really doesn’t want to trouble anyone.
Great Britain, a nation bedeviled by both too little sun and not enough snow – and yet with a respectable amount of GDP (it’s 32nd out of 228 nations, globally listed) falls to the bottom of the scale, with one medal to take home – but at least it’s a gold.
(Leave it to the Brits though to win it in the sport called “skeleton sliding.” It’s a form of single-person bobsledding, or what looks like headfirst luge – but its name makes it sound so quintessentially British – like something to watch while eating haggis.)
Despite the climb up the rankings by China, I’m not sure there will be high-fives across Beijing anytime soon. (At least, there shouldn’t be.) What it really means, as the next chart will reveal, is that for every Shen and Zhao doing triple-toe loop jumps across the ice, there are a few thousand peasant farmers working the land in ways that probably haven’t changed much since the Cultural Revolution.
|people in 100,000’s|
Looking at the medal count against population – not surprisingly - shows that the top of the rankings become dominated by small, wintry countries. Some are former Soviet states. Some – like Norway and Sweden - have so little sun in winter that they score high on global suicide rates. No wonder they’re cardiovascular gods – they need the endorphins. (And Latvia, for the first time – has pulled out ahead against South Korea!)
Canada, alas, is still holding steady in the middle.
The US and Russia – once bitter enemies in the days of the Soviet Union and “Miracle on Ice,” fall to 20th and 21st – not exactly a clash of titans. Based on population, even Australia edges out the US in the medal rankings – in the Winter Olympics. Clearly, something is wrong with this picture.
Perhaps the best way to judge the medal-count would be to examine that amount of GDP per capita invested in national training programs for the Olympics – perhaps cross-referenced with some sort of population count. Still, that wouldn’t explain such phenomena as Kenya’s domination of long-distance running.
So maybe, it’s not about the medal count in the end. It’s how you play the game.