On Medal Counts…

Andy R.

Well, it had to be brought up eventually and after reading this post, I felt obliged to write my thoughts on one of the stupidest aspects of the Olympics:  the medal count.  If you’ve been watching over here in China you are reminded of it by CCTV at pretty much every commercial break, probably very similar to what my family is seeing on NBC back home.  The only difference being that the numbers are naturally interpreted differently depending on which side of the Pacific you are watching from.

In the post linked above, the charge is that the U.S. is “cooking the books” to make it look like they are ahead.   Unlike the Chinese method which says that a country with 1 gold medal should be ranked above a country wth 2, 3, or even 100 silver medals, the U.S. system puts equal value on all medals and just does a simple tally of the total.  To my knowledge, this U.S. way of counting medals is nothing new despite the post’s claims that the Americans have “invented” a new way of counting in order to keep the lead. (Have the Chinese used the method described above in past Olympics as well?  Any other methods out there?)

Obviously, both methods have their flaws.  The U.S. system probably unfairly removes the “worth” of a gold versus a silver versus a bronze medal (the medal that make orphans cry), while the logic of the Chinese system seems to break down when you can have countries with multiple athletes receiving silver and bronze awards ranked below those that only have a single gold medal winner. (More of a “Gold Medal Count” than a “Medal Count” in my opinion, but to each his own…)

Personally, I wish the IOC could just ban broadcasts of the medal tallies and let the crazy nationalists of the world who HAVE to know which country is the “best” tally things at home, either that or have an official IOC-sanctioned tally that takes the question of “how to count medals” off the table.  On the other extreme, you could ban national symbols of any kind be used during the Olympics with the focus on individual rather than national performances, but I guess that would be against what the event is about, if not a little more gentle on the international community’s increasingly fragile nerves…

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Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 35 Comments

the ioc lists medal counts by gold medals won. china appears to be conforming to ioc precendent. see this post:
http://blogs.marketwatch.com/olympicblog/2008/08/15/you-dont-win-silver-you-lose-gold/

August 17, 2008 @ 4:09 pm | Comment

I do remember arguing about the different ways of ranking medals in Olympics past. The US has definitely run rankings this way in previous Olympics, but that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily right about it – just that it’s not anything particularly anti-China. And while the IOC doesn’t ban the rankings, at least officially it doesn’t encourage them, either: “The International Olympic Committee (IOC) does not recognise global ranking per country; the medal tables are displayed for information only.” What struck me this go-round was the sheer ubiquity of the medal tables: practically every Chinese newspaper and online news portal has a widget right there on the front page.

August 17, 2008 @ 4:24 pm | Comment

If China wins more gold stars or medals or whatever, will the ‘century of humiliation plus 60 years of wallowing in it’ finally be over? If so, I pray China wins more golds. Then again, both the USSR and East Germany won way more golds than the US in 1976 — and we all know how that turned out for them.

August 17, 2008 @ 4:35 pm | Comment

What struck me this go-round was the sheer ubiquity of the medal tables: practically every Chinese newspaper and online news portal has a widget right there on the front page.

And yet we’re told that China’s mission for the Olympics is NOT to top the table, just to do well….

As for the medal rankings, I remember certain athletics meets that have ranked countries by points for medals rather than focusing just on gold. The blog quoted asks what if the US won all the golds but China pipped them because they got all the silver and bronze. Well, how about if country X gets say 10 silver medals and 15 bronze, but it misses out on gold repeatedly. Then country Y gets one gold medal and country X has to sit beneath it – is that fair?

I’ve always thought that the points system was a better idea, because it rewards depth in a team. Of course, for the IOC, silver and bronze isn’t sexy enough for them.

August 17, 2008 @ 5:51 pm | Comment

If China wins more gold stars or medals or whatever, will the ‘century of humiliation plus 60 years of wallowing in it’ finally be over?

Oh, I’m sure that references to the past will still be wheeled out when convenient. Either to play the victim, or use it as a rallying call for being belligerent – “never again” sort of thing. And at the moment, I think that when China is 100% confident in every way, with current form it will be even more arrogant than the US has ever been. The central government has nurtured Chinese nationalism as a way of legitimising itself (Socialist “cradle-to-grave” support having gone), but in many respects it can’t control what it has unleashed – or perhaps it is not willing to try the riskier methods of doing so.

Why can’t China just put the past behind it now and be happy with what it has done so far and its potential for the future? There’s plenty to be happy about, even if the country has a long way to go. But for some Chinese I guess it’s a clever game. When China has done wrong or failed to do something, bring up history and talk about how “difficult” China has it. If China is being challenged, say China can do anything and will not be defeated. Completely hypocritical but there you are.

August 17, 2008 @ 6:02 pm | Comment

The Official Beijing Olympics site lists both counts.

But the counting gold medals method isn’t Chinese – it’s how the IOC counts. America is the odd one out here.

http://results.beijing2008.cn/WRM/ENG/INF/GL/95A/GL0000000.shtml

August 17, 2008 @ 6:33 pm | Comment

Eric, no one said that it was a Chinese invention. But the point is that, as far as people here understand, the US has given weighting to all medals (not just gold) in the past, rather than invent it just to get in front for this Olympics.

August 17, 2008 @ 7:09 pm | Comment

Jeremiah over at the Granite Studio http://granitestudio.org/2008/08/14/beijing-2008-the-end-of-us-erm-dominance/ breaks down the numbers of past games, and reminds us that during the Cold War, the Soviet Union was more often at the top of the medal charts. It was only after 1996 that the US started to consistently dominate the games. What happened to countries that have topped the charts? Well, the Soviet Union went the way of the dodo, and we all know what happened one year after 1988, when China did very well. In addition, the per capita medal count has some surprises: looks like this year Armenia and Georgia are doing quite well, and in the past I believe East Germany was at the top.

The point being that medal counts are hardly a mark of a country’s success, and in the case of the Soviet Union and China perhaps represent some additional authoritarian mischief, as these powers have poured massive amounts of resources into a few choice individuals instead of working to develop a wider talent base.

August 17, 2008 @ 7:18 pm | Comment

America has been doing it that way for so long…

Well, if the that is the way the IOC crunches the numbers I guess maybe we should start doing things differently. (And Raj is right in saying that I did not imply that China had “invented” a new counting system. Actually, as Raj says, the charge was made that America had “invented” its own system to do well in this Olympics, when in fact we have been counting medals this that way for a long time. Maybe we invented it earlier for similar reasons, but as much as the Sinocentric fenqing would like to believe the opposite, this one wasn’t a plot to make China look bad, so put the “requests for an official apology” back in the drawer!)

However, I still think that if you are going to base a country’s “overall athletic prowess” on medal counts, then a country that gets 5 silvers and 5 bronzes is obviously more “athletically gifted” than a country that gets 1 gold medal. But obviously, this is an IOC issue…

Anyway, point being (as Sam notes better than I) is that associating medal count with national strength is pretty dumb, but then again, we all buy into a lot of dumb things for the sake of our beloved “imagined communities” (Thanks Benedict Anderson!).

August 17, 2008 @ 8:49 pm | Comment

Check out the all-time medal tallies here:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/All-time_Olympic_Games_medal_count

The US has won more than twice as many gold medals at the Summer Games as the Soviet Union team (894 – 395) however, the USSR team only attended 9 summer games, and one games as a unified team (excluding the Baltic states) ((395+45)/(9+1))=(440/10)= 44 gold medals per summer games. This compares to 894/24 = (roughly) 37 golds per summer games for the US team. But to find the ‘winningest’ nation, you’d have to measure golds per games per capita – which would have to be the East Germans, who won 153 golds in 5 summer games (about 30 per summer games) with a maximum population of just over 16 million people.

But hey, all these stats are pretty meaningless, as negative as I am about the PR nature of the games, I have very much enjoyed watching the athletes of all nations compete. The British medal rush we had yesterday was a nice break, but these games belong to China right now.

August 17, 2008 @ 8:50 pm | Comment

I think medals should be counted on a per capita basis, like how many medals of which kind per 100 million population. In the US’s case, all the numbers should be divide by three, and Australia’s should be multiplied by three.

August 17, 2008 @ 10:44 pm | Comment

Fine, another fact to prove Chinese are all crazy nationalists.

What’s wrong with nationalist? Especially in the Olympics. It’s a competition. It’s a competition for your own country!

And if Gold medal really means nothing, what the hell is going on with all the cheers for Phelps? What if he got 8 silver medals?

IOC counts medals by gold, not just China. It’s the US that use a different way. Why is China to blame here?

August 18, 2008 @ 12:12 am | Comment

Why is China to blame here?

Read the comments, rather than react on auto-pilot assuming there is criticism of China.

It is AMERICA that was being criticised for supposedly creating a new medal table to appear ahead of China, when HISTORICALLY the US has focused on medals won, rather than said one gold medal beats any number of silver and bronze medals.

August 18, 2008 @ 12:29 am | Comment

>>What’s wrong with nationalist?

I think this sentence really sums up the THE basic difference between a large segment of the West and China. Nationalism is the scourge of European history. The twentieth century was the bloodiest in history in large part due to various strains of nationalism. This, plus the fact that the most idiotic elements of any society tend to be the most reactionary and nationalist, has given nationalism a bad name in the West. It is associated with provincialism, chauvinism, and plain stupidity.

In the Chinese experience, on the other hand, nationalism has always been lacking. What? Did I say “lacking?” Well, that is how Chinese see it. Chinese have historically been too busy fighting each other instead of the various foreigners who were busy slicing up the country. Thus in the Chinese educational system, nationalism is espoused as a virtue, not a vice. The uneducated peasants in the countryside are much less nationalist than their highly educated compatriots who live in the city — exactly the opposite of most Western countries.

Obviously, though, from a Western perspective, virtually all of China’s problems stem from too much nationalism, not too little. The insanity of the CR being the most prominent example.

August 18, 2008 @ 1:26 am | Comment

About every other country in the world counts the medal in the official IOC way (by number of gold first.)

So no, it’s not the “China way” vs. the “U.S way”. It’s U.S’s way that is out of the norm here.

August 18, 2008 @ 2:38 am | Comment

“And if Gold medal really means nothing, what the hell is going on with all the cheers for Phelps? What if he got 8 silver medals?”

I suspect because he broke a record (records?) of some kind or another…could that be it, Doctor?

August 18, 2008 @ 7:41 am | Comment

On a more serious note…

I love the Olympics, I’ve watched the Games since I was a kid and I have noticed one key difference. Growing up, the coverage tended to focus on individual or team heroes (Mike Eruzione and the “Miracle on Ice,” Mary Lou in ’84, the Dream Team in 1992, Kerri Strug in 1996, and there are, of course, many more examples) but I don’t recall the overall medal count ever being that big a deal.

Might be something to that.

Who else is far more excited that Jamaica (where sprinting is a national sport) swept the women’s 100m or that Mongolia won their first medal rather than see a few sport superpowers ring up another score to add to their already impressive tallies?

Finally, I’ve noticed that CCTV over the last couple of days has upped the jingoism a notch or three. Before their coverage was equally as obnoxious as the NBC coverage, now…they’re creeping past the line just a smidge.

August 18, 2008 @ 10:12 am | Comment

Raj,

Do you even read the stuff you write?

“Read the comments, rather than react on auto-pilot assuming there is criticism of China.”

Here you go, Raj, from your very own mouth:

“And at the moment, I think that when China is 100% confident in every way, with current form it will be even more arrogant than the US has ever been. …When China has done wrong or failed to do something, bring up history and talk about how “difficult” China has it. If China is being challenged, say China can do anything and will not be defeated. Completely hypocritical but there you are.”

People like you thrive on “criticism of China”. If this is taken away from you (say China miraculously vanishes) your life would be so boring, I am sure.

You didn’t care to elaborate why you think “a confident China would be more arrogant than the US has ever been”. I have to disagree. The US is arrogant because it believes that it is the best in everything and everyone else should just emulate it. China on the other hand is so badly beaten and the Chinese, acutely knowing their many problems, don’t think they have anything to boast about. Some even believe westernization is the way to get China ahead. When you have people with this type of pathetic mentality, how exactly do you expect them to be arrogant?

Hongwang,

You don’t make any sense. CR is “the most prominent example” of having too much nationalism???

August 18, 2008 @ 10:51 am | Comment

“Finally, I’ve noticed that CCTV over the last couple of days has upped the jingoism a notch or three. Before their coverage was equally as obnoxious as the NBC coverage, now…they’re creeping past the line just a smidge.”

I’ve sensed that too, which goes someway to backing up Raj’s point that arrogance levels rise when victory (in this case medals) is virtually assured. I might add, at the risk of stirring the fenqing, that the BBC’s coverage of the Olympics, while focusing on British athletes when they are in action, is far more even handed in its treatment and commentary (BBC v CCTV – not much of a contest, really).

On a general note concerning CCTV’s coverage, it has been pretty woeful on the whole, particularly with respect to some stadium finals in which China is not playing a prominent role. This is understandable to a degree, but they have many channels at their disposal and at any one time there always seems to be at least one devoted to basking in the glory of the motherland instead of showing us, say, the final of the men’s 10 000m, which featured one of the greatest Olympians of all time.

Actually, in that last named instance we got to see the last few seconds of the race. Other competitions and matches have given way to endless repeats of Chinese medalists. Overall verdict: beautiful stadium, crap coverage.

August 18, 2008 @ 11:37 am | Comment

Pfeffer,

It’s a beautiful day here in Beijing, the sun is shining through my window as I sit here working surrounded by my little garden and two sleeping cats. I’ve got the Olympics on the box, looking forward to cheering on Liu Xiang in about eight minutes, and I gotta say…it’s good to be happy.

Reading the garbage and psychological baggage you spew all over the blogshere makes me realize how lucky I am and how utterly miserable some people’s lives must be. I pity you, my man. You gotta get out and see the sun shine once in awhile.

August 18, 2008 @ 11:41 am | Comment

Stuart,

I don’t know about the BBC, but at least the crappy CCTV cares to broadcast a lot more evens than just Michael Phelps. Does the BBC focus on mostly rowing, where Britain got most of its medals from? Tell us how “even-handed” the BBC coverage is.

Jingoism? By CCTV? Like what?

August 18, 2008 @ 11:46 am | Comment

Jaremiah,

You cracked me up. Come on, don’t you expect yourself to do better than a cheapshot like that? Haha, “the garbage and psychological baggage you spew all over the blogshere”? I could have said the same thing about a lot of people here (don’t know much about you though) but I didn’t, instead I chose to focus on what people say, not who said what.

If you have a problem with anything I said go ahead and say it, point to point and I’d be glad to respond. Otherwise stop wasting everyone’s time and grow up.

August 18, 2008 @ 11:56 am | Comment

>>CR is “the most prominent example” of having too much nationalism???

If you haven’t figured out the connection between nationalism and the CR yet, I fear you are a lost cause.

I tried to give you a reasonable explanation for misunderstandings Westerners and Chinese have over nationalism. I didn’t say Westerners are “right” on this score; I merely tried to explain that Westerners and Chinese have very different (virtually opposite) views of the value and dangers of nationalism due to their different histories with it.

August 18, 2008 @ 12:09 pm | Comment

Hongwang,

I understand the part about different experiences and perceptions westerners and Chinese have over nationalism, no explanation is needed. I just don’t agree that CR can be attributed to “too much nationalism”. Maybe GLP to a certain degree, but CR? Care to enlighten me?

August 18, 2008 @ 12:20 pm | Comment

I’m still not sure why it is said that ranking by number of golds is how the IOC does it. Comment #6 has a link and the statement “it’s how the IOC counts”. When I go to that link it brings me to the Beijing Olympics page which is NOT the IOC is it? It is not the IOC site is it?

August 18, 2008 @ 12:48 pm | Comment

Here’s a solution: a weighted points system. Three points for a gold, two for a silver, one for a bronze. Rank by total points. Change the weightings as desired (e.g. 10-5-1, whatever). Anyone care to run the numbers?

Even more fair would be a medal count based on national population. And maybe GDP needs to be factored in as well — after all, richer nations can afford better training programs, equipment, drugs, etc.

But all that fairness introduces complexity! I’m with those who would just drop all mention of nationality. Why should teams be composed only of athletes from the same country? It’s supposed to be about the athletic achievement, isn’t it?

I guess the real question is, how many would still watch the Olympics if it wasn’t based on competition between nations?

August 18, 2008 @ 3:18 pm | Comment

The UK’s Channel 4 website has an interesting medals table that allows you to rank based on population (#1- Jamaica), GDP (#1- North Korea) and HR index (#1- USA). Click the medals table link on the right hand side of this page:

http://www.channel4.com/news/general/beijing_2008

And to Pffefer@臭狗屁, questioning how even handed the BBC’s olympic coverage has been- certainly they have focused on Team GB; that’s only natural given the actual demographic that pays for the BBC (the British public). However, having experienced Chinese coverage of the Athens games four years ago, I can assure you that the BBC presents a much more rounded view of the games. Even this past weekend, in which Team GB collected most of their medals so far, it was possible to see live action from events featuring barely any British interest.

Due to the BBC’s advances in digital broadcasting, at this very moment it is possible to watch Athletics, Trampolining (just finished- gold for china), Boxing and Equestrian, live and for free. It is also possible to watch selective highlights from all other events using the BBC website and the very impressive iPlayer. The coverage does not focus solely on British athletes or events of interest to the british public (seriously- who is interested in trampolining?).

The only spanner in the works is the fact that broadcast exclusivity contracts prevent people from outside the British Isles from enjoying these services, however this is something that affects all nationalities.

August 18, 2008 @ 9:54 pm | Comment

Counts based upon GDP and population can be found here with statistics dating back to the 1996 games:

http://simon.forsyth.net/olympics.html

Jamaica, Slovakia and Australia are currently holding the top 3 positions in terms of population.

August 18, 2008 @ 10:22 pm | Comment

To further backup my point, I am now watch China vs Germany in the men’s doubles table tennis, live on the BBC website (also being broadcast on TV). No British interest at all, but they still show it. Was it possible, for example, to watch the men’s team pursuit track cycling (GBR vs NZL), live on CCTV?

August 18, 2008 @ 10:52 pm | Comment

gwyn,

“Was it possible, for example, to watch the men’s team pursuit track cycling (GBR vs NZL), live on CCTV?”

Of course, why not? It was on CCTV-12, also availabe on CCTV.com, according to this http://2008.cctv.com/aoyun/special/C21677/01/01/31/20080817.shtml#p2
http://2008.cctv.com/05/24/index.shtml

CCTV broadcasts a lot of events where no Chinese athletes participate, what are you talking about?

August 19, 2008 @ 12:25 am | Comment

I was asking, since I am not there to see for myself. I did not say that it wasn’t possible to do so. You have answered my question.

August 19, 2008 @ 12:50 am | Comment

Useless tallying, congratulations and celebrating by all involved for something meaningless. Getting human animals to perform in a circus is not much of an achievement. It’s the human mind that breaks boundaries, barriers, precedent and should be celebrated. But, of course, in China that would be dangerous and un-harmonious. Can’t actually have people thinking, now can we?

August 19, 2008 @ 7:47 am | Comment

China is running the table on the medal count! In spades!

I just read on some American site that in the end, the medal count is figured on a sliding scale, I think it was 4 for a gold, 3 for a silver 1 for a bronze..maybe i remember it slightly wrong, but it does seam logical that golds should count for more than the simple count of medals. The Yahoo Olympics site simply shows the chart of which medals were won by which countries and does an aggregate count. Maybe that’s what CCTV is complaining about. In the end, if things finish up the way they’re going, China will have routed the medal count.

It’s still a toss up how you count it and I don’t think medal counts are an official IOC stat anyway. Should a team medal the same as an individual medal?

China started out ahead in the gold medal count and the distance between the US and China has only widened since then. What a showing, in every way, they have made in the Games. What facilities, what shows! I think that’s what most viewers will come away with.

August 22, 2008 @ 1:11 am | Comment

the old greeks (who invented the stuff) did only count gold. no sivler, no bronze, only one winner. but i think they did not make a medal count ,-)

August 23, 2008 @ 3:09 am | Comment

Let us go with a weighted system since some people are so into total medal count, and yet we can’t say with all honesty that a gold is equivalent to a bronze.
So here it is:

3 points for gold, 2 points for silver, 1 point for bronze.
China still wins !

August 25, 2008 @ 6:26 am | Comment

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