Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Olympic medals: weighted, per capita, per GDP

I have always thought the Olympic Games medals tables to be way too simplistic.
Case in point: the Canadian media always show the table in order of total medals, presumably because it shows Canada in the best light (in Rio, Canada placed an impressive 10th in total medals, as compared to a mediocre 20th when ranked by golds); British media, on the other hand, show the medal standings in order of gold medals (GB placed second, above China, in golds, but third, below China, in total medals). I feel sure that the Chinese media would use the total medals rankings system for the very same reason.
I have never understood why the medals table does not reflect the quality of medals by a points system, say 3 points for a gold, 2 for a silver and 1 for a bronze, or perhaps the 4:2:1 ranking suggested by the New York Times (other weighting suggestions have also been put forward).
I could find surprisingly few resources on the Internet for such a weighted tally, but one I did find weighted gold at 6, silver at 3 and bronze at 2 (which seems reasonable to me). What it shows is not particularly revolutionary - USA followed by GB, China, Russia and Germany, with Canada in 15th spot - not significantly different from the rankings by gold medals, apart from in a few minor cases further down the table (e.g. France boosted slightly by its silver medal count, Kenya and Jamaica demoted slightly because of the preponderance of golds among their medals, etc).
But there are other options. For example, another way that the medal standings could be portrayed is according to medals per capita or medals per GDP. These methods would level the proverbial playing field, and adjust for the built-in advantages enjoyed by large and rich countries. Luckily, someone has already done the hard work here, and analyzed the medals tables for the Rio (and previous) Olympics, both by population and by GDP.
The medals per capita shows a very different picture than the one we are used to seeing. The United States languishes back in 43rd position, and China in 76th. The heavy hitters here are now the Caribbean islands of Grenada, Bahamas and Jamaica, followed by New Zealand, Denmark, Croatia and Slovenia. Britain still places a respectable 19th, and Canada 31st.
In medals per GDP, Grenada and Jamaica still head the table, followed now by Kenya, Fiji, Armenia and Georgia. (On some analyses, Chinese Taipei ranks top by this method - I'm not sure what the issue is there). The United States falls still further to 64th, while China improves slightly to 61st. Great Britain and Canada lie in 36th and 62nd places respectively. Quite an eye-opener.
And which metric is best? Well that depends on who you ask...

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