Why Medal Counts Don’t Really Count

Posted on March 4, 2010


You have to wonder what the ancient Greeks talked about after their Olympic games finished. (I mean, we know what the modern Greeks talked about, or should have talked about, after their Olympics: how the hell are we ever going to pay for this?! Does anybody here have any connections at Bear Stearns?)

After all, when the original Olympics were held all the athletes were from the same nation; if you will pardon that anachronistic use of “nation”. It’s not like they were going to invite barbarians, or that giant dude they encountered in the battle depicted in the movie 300. But with only one nation represented, they wouldn’t have been able to debate final medal tallies, the relative significance of medaling in different sports, the proliferation of medals in certain kinds of sports, and so on.

Since my post on “Who Won?” a few days ago I’ve had plenty of off-line banter about these kinds of questions, post-Vancouver. I haven’t talked to anybody who seriously cared which country won. Somehow that’s not quite the issue. But everybody I talk to finds something unsettling about the status quo.

What’s the problem? The following set of facts don’t add up:

  1. In most sports, unless there’s a larger-than-life star like a Nadia or an Apolo involved, most of us naturally cheer for our fellow nationals. Few of us watch any of these sports during the four intervening years, and wouldn’t take much interest if we couldn’t find some reason to cheer for someone. It would be like going to a horse race and not bothering to bet. Few people are thrilled just watching a bunch of mammals being whipped as they run around an oval track.
  2. The broadcasters and other media outlets pay a lot of attention throughout the games to the comparative medal tallies, and to reporting how their viewers’ country is faring. Presumably this is because they know their audience cares about the performance of their national team.
  3. There is something odd about the distribution of medals across different sports. There were 15 sports in Vancouver and medals given out in about 86 events (if my quick arithmetic is correct). If you sent a men’s hockey team with 20-some players, your country could expect no more than one solitary medal. But if you sent a 20-person speed-skating team, your country might well collect a dozen medals or more, and one person might get a few of them. Yet, nobody would say that speed skating is 10 or 20 times more important than hockey (or even twice as important).
  4. Some sports are clearly more “prestigious” — that is, in the language of philosophers, held to be more intrinsically valuable — than others. A lot more. But this value is not “weighted” into medal counts in any way. On the contrary, the situation described in point 3 suggests that there may even be a lot more medals available for “teams” in some less prestigious sports.
  5. There is NO WAY folks would ever agree on anything like an official ranking of sports by prestige. Like many other judgments of value in ethics and aesthetics, these judgments are inherently controversial (or “essentially contested,” as analytic philosophers used to say). We can not even agree on the criteria that should go into making a judgment about the intrinsic values of any given sport, or about how we would reasonably rank sports qualitatively.
  6. But this is not to say that such judgments are “all relative.” One can advance reasons for why sport A is more “worthy” than sport B; and one can even advance reasons for why those reasons are relevant. It is not merely a question of personal taste or preference, any more than judgments about art works, wine tasting, justice, or the good life are merely matters of personal preference. (It is possible that this kind of value judgment in ranking “quality” of different sports, or different ways of playing a given sport, is neither an aesthetic question or a moral one; but rather a third category of value judgment that hasn’t been deemed worthy enough by intellectual snobs to have its own name…)
  7. There must obviously be political and financial explanations (and probably some combination of the two in the form of bribery to IOC officials) for why certain sports have been “deemed” worthy of being or staying in the Olympics, and others not. And for why some sports can hand out buckets full of medals and others only one set of three.
  8. There’s no reason to think that these political and financial reasons coincide in any way with our best judgments about what sports are most worthy.
  9. As time goes on it is likely that more and more of the new sports in the Olympics will require a lot of expensive infrastructure for a country to be able to produce Olympic medalists. Kenya can produce distance runners by scouting promising young runners and hiring a few coaches. But even swimming requires a lot more infrastructure than that; so only wealthy countries tend to medal in sports like swimming, indoor cycling or speed skating, curling, bobsled, etc. And look, some of these sports have a proliferation of medals — at artificially spaced distances; with relays that involve no real teamwork and allow second-rate practitioners to medal; and in the case of swimming, four different strokes, each at different distances, and some involving relays, thus allowing one person to win 7 medals. The sports that don’t require much infrastructure — from running and boxing to soccer — and which are often dominated by athletes in the developing world, tend to give out few medals. (Thanks to Kieran, who blogs over here, among other places, for highlighting some of these points.)
  10. There is an Economics prof at Colorado College, Daniel Johnson, who has developed a model for predicting medal success for a country based entirely on “five variables: population, income per capita, climate, political structure, and host-nation advantage.” I haven’t studied the model, but I’m guessing GDP is pretty heavily weighted. The modern Olympic Games began as a set of contests for members of an independently wealthy leisure class. And as newer sports require more and more infrastructure they will favor countries with well-funded public facilities. Presumably rich countries that derive national pride from international athletic success will be more willing to fund expensive infrastructure. And if they’re smart they will do it in the sports that hand out the most medals. So the future belongs to the populous, wealthy, nationalistic countries. I.e. China.
  11. It may not even be particularly useful for any given country to judge the quality of its athletes by comparing this year’s medal count to that in previous Olympics. It strikes me that a rather high percentage of sports in the Winter Games involve a lot of random, chancy factors beyond the control of the athletes. That is: luck. If your staggered start in many of the alpine and cross-country skiing events happens after wet snow begins to fall, you will not win, even if everybody recognizes you are the best in the field. Similarly in short-track speed skating: if someone falls and wipes you out, it’s over. Because there are so few events, we should not be surprised that this randomness will show up in any given country’s medal count from one Olympiad to the next. The gains and losses may be mostly “statistical noise” if what we are trying to track is quality of training programs, for example. In short: somebody should hire all those Russian coaches who were just fired. It may not have been their fault.

So what does all this amount to? Not much I guess: apart from a number of topics that will be worth exploring in the future, outside of the context of the fairness or logic of medal counts.

In the previous post I reached for the standard data-processing metaphor to explain why medal counts were such an unsatisfying way of evaluating a country’s Olympic success: “garbage in, garbage out.” There’s also a useful adage in management theory: “not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”