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Heavy medals

Posted by Scott LaPierre  August 23, 2008 07:57 AM

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As the Olympics wind down, I did one last man-on-the-street informal survey today, this time to find out which country Beijingers think is the big winner of the 2008 Olympics. China, of course, is way ahead in gold medals, but the US has a slight edge (as I write this) in the total medals count.

A few people politely pointed out that no one wins the Olympics, or that the whole world wins. B O R I N G. But when pressed on the total-medals-versus-gold-medals issue, everyone was in agreement that it's gold medals that matter the most.

Some said that the gold count is the way that China traditionally measures Olympics victory, and since we're in China that's the measure we should use this year. "Based on this meaning, the big winner is the Chinese."

One person conceded that America's higher total medal count indicates that Americans are more well rounded across a broader spectrum of different sports--they're just not as good at the sports they're good at as the Chinese.

My favorite answers had to do with the intrinsic superiority of gold, the substance. One woman said gold is worth more, and therefore should be the way we decide overall victory. Another gentleman simply reasoned: "Gold is the most heavy." Enough said.

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5 comments so far...
  1. Countries ranked by gold isn't the Chinese way. To keep your reader perfectly informed, you need to point out pretty the rest of the world except the U.S. uses the IOC standard which is to rank countries by gold (if tie in gold, then silver, so on). It's absurd Americans disregarding the IOC rule insist on the rank w total medals.

    Question for you - how come nobody (even in the States) argued in 2004 that Phelps (6 golds and 2 silvers) had broken Spitz's record (7 golds)? He should have 8 total medals beating Spitz's 7 already in the 2004 Olympics, shouldn't he?

    Gold is golden. Nobody can argue that.

    Posted by Kevin Smith August 23, 08 10:04 AM
  1. Even for a chinese like me, I found these comments biased as expected. Yeah, some REALLY made sense. To be fair, they have out performed their prior success by a huge margin, home court advantage or not. They are the big winners, but so are the US or even tunisia/india who won their first gold medals. The medal haul by Great Britain is a surprise.

    As for the total count vs. gold count method for the medal table. whatever! Just do both so each nation that benefits can gloat. IMO, the intrinsic worth of gold is real, but it holds the most importance/value for the athletes themselves aka to be number one in their sports (well, at least for that day as the margin victory can be so small). For me, the total medal count is where you show a country's dominance in these games. Especially, when you are the only country to break 100 and reach 110 even with let downs in some of its dominant events. Number one or not on the medal count table.

    Posted by Chinaman August 23, 08 11:41 AM
  1. Kevin Smith,

    I agree with you Gold is golden and US media are biased by ranking total medal count so we can appear as number one. Couple of thoughts:

    1) It was more about a rare feat and individual achievement so getting those 8 golds was a must. Spitz also broke 7 records to get his medals. Also Phelps um... won 6 golds and 2 bronzes in 2004. Not silvers. However, I consider a future swimmer that has the same 6 gold and 2 bronze performance to be much superior to the 8 gold feat if he did that with the inclusion of the 10000m open swim and the 1500m free. feel differently about individual achievement than overall winner/dominance. If you talk about overall dominance, I personally think total medal count counts for more.

    2) To keep you perfectly informed, IOC is not allowed to provide an official ranking due to its charter. It manipulates wording to say they are releasing info (medal count) based on a gold medal ranking as most countries are doing. The medal tables from all past olympics listed on the IOC website have the same disclaimer. So it is not a rule that the US media disregarded, but rather a standard akin to driving on the right side vs. left side of road. Of course, US media had an agenda to put US first as well. That said, I don't have a problem ranking by gold medal count and ranking china first and US second. Doesn't change my perception that china has much improved its performance since 1984, but US still slightly more dominant... for now.

    Posted by Chinaman August 23, 08 10:25 PM
  1. It is not that the Chinese that think this: if the ranking would be opposite, then the US press would also report the ranking by the gold medal (which is how past results have been reported, whether it's official policy or not. Actually for the IOC any type of medal ranking are "officially" against their policy (so the people giving the answer marked "boring" are right!).

    But suppose gold mattered as much as silver and bronze. Let's say Michael Phelps won 2 silver and 6 bronze medals. He would certainly still be considered a very good (if somewhat unlucky) member of the US swimming team. But would he still be considered a super-hero, the best olympian of all time and such? I doubt it.

    PS: I really wish the situation will be exactly the opposite in the next olympics. The usual (rank by medal type) system would suddenly look "official"...

    Posted by Val August 24, 08 02:29 PM
  1. Chinaman, Kevin's point is 100% correct-- the IOC standard, international practice, and practically every single news organization outside the USA, ranks countries by gold medals. That's just how it's done, and how it's always been done, period.

    I'm sorry, but even as an American, I don't buy your argument-- to say that "110 total medals outdoes 100 total medals," would be to equate all the medals, gold = silver = bronze. That's totally ridiculous-- nobody, and I mean nobody does that, including US media and athletes. Would you argue that 10 silver are better than 9 gold? Or even 5 gold? No, of course not-- and neither do the athletes and countries, who are disappointed with silver in comparison to gold. There's a pretty semiquantitative way to figure out about how much a gold medal is relative to a silver, and if you polled just about any athlete or even spectator, a gold would be worth at least 5 silvers, if not more. Even your own claim about "the total medals indicating who is more well-rounded," is flawed-- what about 4th and 5th place? Total Top 10 finishes? Top 25?

    This is why the gold medal standard is used-- it's a measure of how many times a country's athletes won an event, as opposed to getting a consolation prize (varying places behind the winner). That's how rankings in any sport are done, in the USA as well as anywhere else, and even we know it. In fact, the USA itself used to use gold medal rankings as well in 2004, and switched in 2008 only when the USA started falling behind, which is ridiculous.

    None of this is to disparage the performance of the non-gold medal athletes-- any athlete who even takes part in the Olympics is amazing. But for ranking purposes, gold medals are the standard. If you're going to even consider the other medals, then you'd need to weight them somehow. As I said, for most athletes, one single gold would be worth at least 5 silvers, but if you wanted to be conservative about it, you could use the "4-2-1-" weighting system of the NYT (a gold worth twice as much as a silver, a silver worth twice as much as a bronze), which if anything is an underestimate of the gold's value. But still, you'll just about always wind up with the same result as the gold medal rankings.

    Bottom line-- whether you use the official IOC international standard gold medal rankings, or a weighted points system for the medals, China wins. Hands down. USA media only make our country into a laughingstock if they try to deny it, and make it worse. Honestly-- I'm a manager in my company, and my employees mess up all the time. But the only ones who get fired, are the ones who make excuses, or try to pretend they did better than they did. The ones who keep their jobs, are the ones who admit they didn't quite do as well as they wanted, and just strive to do better next time. IOW, the USA is making things much worse for itself here.

    Nobody would disparage the USA all that much for coming in 2nd place to China, since the Chinese are the hosts after all. No big deal.

    OTOH, acting like sour losers with sour grapes by trying to do what is obviously a lame misrepresentation of the results, only makes us into a global laughingstock, insecure and pathetic. Not the kind of image we want to be projecting.

    Posted by Leonard August 24, 08 04:17 PM

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