Why is the Olympic medal table different in American media?
August 19, 2008 12:54 AM   Subscribe

Why do Olympic medal tables in US media look different to medal tables in media in the rest of the world?

I've seen it in quite a few places: CNN, ESPN, NY Times, for example, are presenting a medal table ranking countries by total medals won. Everywhere else seems to rank by golds, then silvers, then bronzes. Why the difference? A snarky answer would be that the USA is top of the USA's list, but behind China in everybody else's. Has the USA media always ranked like this? And if so, why? It makes no sense to me - people remember gold medal winners, not bronze medal winners. As a guess, did the Soviet Union tend to win more golds than the USA, but fewer total medals?
posted by salmacis to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (22 answers total)
The IOC ranks country totals by gold medals won. This puts China on top.

US media ranks, currently, by total medals won. This puts the USA on top.

I should think the reason, taking into account general US media coverage of Olympics past and present, is tolerably obvious.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 1:13 AM on August 19, 2008

The US hasn't always used this method of medal ranking: someone from the Guardian (UK) noticed the change and wondered the same thing (stirring up some offended commenters below the article).
posted by jacalata at 1:23 AM on August 19, 2008

It is my understanding that there is no 'official' country ranking system, but the press come up with their own systems.

I will admit that having silver and bronze medals not count towards a country's rank seems a bit weird, as they're pretty impressive achievements.

Likewise, having gold, silver and bronze count as the same seems equally weird. There's a difference for a reason.

You could have a scaling factor for silver and bronze, so that silver counted for half a gold or something, but then the scaling factors you choose would change the table rankings - i.e. there's no sensible way to choose what those scaling factors were.

Medals per population is a better measure of a nation's sporting prowess anyway
posted by Mike1024 at 1:30 AM on August 19, 2008

Australia has always believed that, Mike
posted by jacalata at 1:32 AM on August 19, 2008

After noticing this I'd wondered too. Definitely appears to be the US media wanting the US to come out ahead, but it's still odd that all American media is making the switch? (Early in this year's coverage the commentators on NBC were discussing it: Tiki Barber was for ranking by gold; Brian Williams for the total-medal rankings, I remember.)

My personally devised (and somewhat convoluted) solution: medal weighting (e.g., gold = 3, silver = 2, bronze = 1)
posted by five_dollars at 1:43 AM on August 19, 2008

Medal weighting is precisely how the IOC calculates how many athletes you get to send to the next Games. 8 points for gold, down to 1 point for 8th place finish in finals. (I'm not sure if that changes with things like rowing, for example, which only have 6 places in a final).
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 1:57 AM on August 19, 2008

Well if you're comparing teams, or countries in this case, isn't it true that most team track and field sports are scored based on top three finishers in each event? Team China might have more golds, but if Team America has more overal medals than they may also have more overall points than team America?

Interesting that Communist China seems to be promoting indivudual performances over the team.
posted by three blind mice at 3:13 AM on August 19, 2008

It's not just the US, Canadian media do it too, for the same reason I guess. I don't know why we count anything other than gold. If we're counting silver and bronze, why not tin for fourth, and antimony for fifth. Still remarkable achievements. But the gold medal winner is the only "winner".
posted by loquax at 4:22 AM on August 19, 2008

Channel 4 in the UK have a cool Flash medal table where you can sort by population, GDP, and human rights record as well as the standard total golds.
posted by penguinliz at 4:30 AM on August 19, 2008 [2 favorites]

There was a big discussion about this on (I think) the blue, but I'm having trouble finding it. Someone in there linked to a Wall Street Journal about the topic. There were arguments for and against.

The IOC ranks country totals by gold medals won.

The article mentioned that officially, the IOC has no official comment on the matter (ie. which way to rank). It was only recently that they started releasing medal counts at all.
posted by inigo2 at 4:32 AM on August 19, 2008

And regarding that guardian article, please don't evaluate Americans based on the USA Today. Thanks.
posted by inigo2 at 4:33 AM on August 19, 2008

I assume it's for the same reason that Canadian media sources (reportedly) focus on the relative dearth of Canadian medals - because every country wants to Be The Best. I don't think "Second Place! Yippie!" plays very well to many crowds.
posted by muddgirl at 4:49 AM on August 19, 2008

1996 medal count from the NY Times circa 1996 web design, by total medals. 1998, same, even though the US would be ranked 4th by Golds but is ranked 6th by total.

That's about as far back as you can go on the web. But it does show that the Guardian's idea of a switch is pretty silly based on one data point.

The theory that it was done to beat the USSR is interesting, but doesn't hold up to much scrutiny, since the US was below the USSR in both counts in 1972, 1976, 1988, 1992 (unified team), and ahead in both counts in 1996, 2000, and 2004. So the ranking didn't make a difference in the summer games until this year.
posted by smackfu at 6:01 AM on August 19, 2008

And a BBC page from 2000 that's by gold medal count. So they could have written the story 8 years ago.
posted by smackfu at 6:14 AM on August 19, 2008

I should think the reason, taking into account general US media coverage of Olympics past and present, is tolerably obvious.

As you can see, this is a debate that brings out the best in people.

This is an extremely complicated question. It's certainly not a conspiracy by the U.S. media to keep the U.S. on top in 2008. Or if it is, it's a conspiracy that was planned the first time A.P. (the source for tables for most U.S. publications) covered the Olypmics in 1503 or something.

Nevertheless, if you're interested in the gory details, this Wall Street Journal article from last week has everything you could want to know about this debate.
posted by caek at 6:18 AM on August 19, 2008

And little more from the NY Times Olympics blog.
posted by caek at 6:20 AM on August 19, 2008

Never ascribe to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.
posted by blue_beetle at 6:28 AM on August 19, 2008

Medals per population is a better measure of a nation's sporting prowess anyway

Not necessarily. Assume that China and the US each send the maximum number of competitors to each event, and end up winning the same number of medals. Given the relative population sizes, the US would be scored ~4 times higher than China. That doesn't seem exactly fair. Additionally, if a country like the Bahamas wins even one medal, they immediately vault to the top of the list.

Frankly, the idea of ranking a whole nation based on the sporting accomplishments of a few individuals seems idiotic.
posted by chrisamiller at 8:49 AM on August 19, 2008

My personally devised (and somewhat convoluted) solution: medal weighting (e.g., gold = 3, silver = 2, bronze = 1)

And by "personally devised" you mean "the system Keith Olbermann promoted during the bit with Tiki Barber and Brian Williams that I talk about in my post". Heh.

Anyway, I know I saw at least some newspapers using the 3-2-1 system in past olympics. I think it makes perfect sense and all right-thinking news organizations should use it.

Under the system the rankings are:

CHINA - 176
USA - 157
GBR - 74


I expect the USA will be on top at the end under this system. China isn't exactly a track&field powerhouse. They front-loaded their medal count with gymnastics, diving, etc. The USA will clean up in track as compared to China.
posted by Justinian at 11:14 AM on August 19, 2008

Justinian: Classic! I don't remember seeing that part of the discussion, honest! Selective memory?

I'll concede it's undoubted not a completely original thought, but I hadn't really delved in to the history of the various ranking methods.
posted by five_dollars at 6:49 PM on August 19, 2008

five_dollars: It's perfectly possible that they spoke about the medal rankings multiple times and Keith O wasn't involved in most of them. But it was too good an opening to pass up.

I think we've answered this question as well as it's going to be answered; which method of counting is best is subjective (although, as stated, I think the 3-2-1 system has by far the most going for it) and these days the US outlets will probably use whatever method puts the US closest to the top.
posted by Justinian at 7:23 PM on August 19, 2008

these days the US outlets will probably use whatever method puts the US closest to the top.

No. As I said, they will use whatever A.P. uses, and A.P. will use the method they have always used. This really isn't hard to grasp, but if you like the conspiracy theory explanation then I can recommend some great websites about 9/11.
posted by caek at 8:33 PM on August 19, 2008

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