Who Won the Vancouver Olympics?

Posted on March 1, 2010


I suppose the official answer to this question is, “The World,” which according to the IOC mission is supposed to be made “peaceful and better” by “educating youth through sport practised in accordance with Olympism and its values.”

But of course anybody who asks the question “who won?” really wants to know which country won. The IOC website will not answer that question anywhere. It will not even give you an easily accessible table listing medals by country, let alone a ranking of countries. They will, however, point you to the official site of the Vancouver games, which has a medal table by country on the front page. By default it ranks countries by total medals, though it allows you to sort by any kind of medal; in case, say, you wanted to see who won the most bronze.

It is of course rather disingenuous for the IOC to continue pretending that the Olympics is about individual sporting achievement and sportsmanship in a cosmopolitan world with — at least temporarily — no borders. They are not an international agency, like the UN, but an international corporation protecting one of the greatest brands of all time.

They know full well that countries battle tooth and nail to host the Games, often with the primary objective of boosting their national “brand” at home and abroad. And they know that the international viewership — who generate the television revenues that are the life-blood of IOC Inc — would not be able to sustain interest in sports nobody watches for the four intervening years if they could not identify with their national athletes. The Cold War would have been no fun at all if the USA and USSR couldn’t have vented some of their steam in the race to “own the podium,” as we now say.

The question of who won Vancouver, which is clearly a subject of controversy in Canada today, if nowhere else, comes down to whether you count by gold medals alone, or by a sum of all medals. Canada won the most golds, for the first time ever; and the USA won the most total medals. US papers and NBC TV all show a ranking by total medals, which has had the US on top throughout most of the Olympic fortnight. European media sources, interestingly enough seem to generally rank countries by gold medals, using silvers and bronzes only for breaking ties.

I vaguely recall the Canadian newspapers of my youth ranking countries by awarding 3 points for gold, 2 for silver, and 1 for bronze. This seems pretty sensible, all things considered. It didn’t even help Canada’s standing at the time, because until recently, Canada won few gold medals — and famously none in the two previous Olympiads it hosted.

One suspects that Canadian airwaves, blogs, and newspapers today will be filled with arguments for why we should really rank “nations” by most golds. But I can assure you, I never once heard this argument presented in all the years I lived in Canada. Anybody advancing such an argument today should provide evidence that they had presented it during past Olympics, where it would have dropped Canada in the rankings.

I personally have no particular dog in this hunt. I admit I was generally happier learning that a Canadian I’d never heard of beat someone else I’d never heard of in some sport I don’t give a rat’s ass about. But the fact that a well-financed “Own the Podium” campaign brought Canada more medals than ever before does not seem to raise my internal pride barometer. I’m just introspecting here, not passing judgment on those legions of Canadians who are clearly swollen with vicarious pride today — as I can see in my Facebook and Twitter feeds.

But I do have two bones to pick with any ranking system that just tots up medals — even if it weights golds more than bronzes. It’s a version of the garbage-in, garbage-out critique.

Bone-to-pick #1. Let us grant that for an individual or team, winning a gold medal is always huge, and equally huge no matter what the sport. For those athletes, that sport — no matter how obscure or ridiculous — is their whole world. It’s all they’ve thought about for years.

But from the point of view of countries, some sports are clearly more important than others. Which sports are most important varies a bit from country to country. But even then, there are clear glamor sports that get a lot of coverage in every country, even in those that have no hope of medaling. These are the sports whose stars become international stars. To name just a few: in Summer we’re talking gymnastics, basketball, 100m dash, the 1500m, the marathon, swimming; and in Winter its figure skating, hockey, the classic alpine skiing races, and maybe speed skating. Obviously these lists become controversial and they evolve over time. Boxing is not as big as it once was, and sports involving snowboards are coming up.

The point is: nobody really thinks that a gold in the two-man luge counts as much as a gold in figure skating or hockey. A lot can be said about why this is the case. Something real underlies this intuition. In the crudest terms, if your country had no strong standing in any winter Olympic sports, and wanted to invest some money to win a medal, which sports would be the easiest to go from zero to hero in? Not figure skating or ice hockey.

Sports like these have a chance to select from the greatest athletes with the properly endowed body types and skills. And by the time you get to Olympic levels, you really are left with the most talented of the talented (athletes and coaches) skimmed from a very large pool. But in sports like, say, Nordic Combined you are working from a very small pool of athletes, all of whom took up the sport because they were not good enough at some other sport (in this case ski jumping and cross-country skiing).

I think we can say that figure skating and hockey are intrinsically more valuable sports, and any ranking system that can’t take this into account is flawed.

Bone-to-pick #2. There is something wrong with totting up medals when some sports are allowed to award multiple gold medals for small variations of the same competition. If most of the people competing in skiing or speed skating events A, B, and C are the same people, and if it is in fact often the case that the same person wins at all three events, then we should call it a triathlon and give out one gold medal.

This is particularly true for races. Track and field has it about right. People can rarely medal at two distances, and medaling or even starting in three distances at the same Olympics is almost unheard of. This means they have appropriately spaced the distances to account for different types of bodies and running styles. But when one man can win at 4 different cross-country ski distances, it’s a great achievement, obviously, but also an indication that this sport does not “deserve” to be able to hand out 4 different golds. Make it a quadrathlon. (For good measure we should note that a country that’s good at, say, cross-country skiing can pick up more than a dozen total medals in this sport. A country that’s good at hockey or basketball? One.)

I would like to think that this is not my nationalism talking — that I can not bring myself to believe that Canada’s victory in the most thrilling hockey game I can remember counted for no more or less than the gold in the two-man luge. But then again, who’s really counting?