The Olympics – who really won ?

Andy Murray Olympic MedalistI spent a few weeks in Scotland at the Edinburgh festival on my summer holiday. I was struck by how the local press was trumpeting how successful “Scotland” had been in the Olympics, even though it was competing as part of the UK. Had Scotland been a separate county it would have come 12th in the league tables with 13 medals ( UK as a whole won 65). On the other hand, people who dream of an independent Scotland must have been disappointed to see Scots like Chris Hoy and Andy Murray draped in the Union Jack after winning their golds and proclaiming their pride in being part of “Team GB”.

The Olympic medal table shows how many medals each country won. You might think that it should be very easy to figure out was is the overall winner. Not true. Even with such a simple set of underlying facts there are plenty of tricks you can play in the interpretation of those facts. Which only goes to prove the old adage “Statistics are often used as a drunk man uses a lamp post – for support rather than illumination”.

The version of the table most familiar to readers of the UK press goes like this, with the UK in third place:


Rank      Country               Gold            Silver            Bronze            Total

1.             USA                     46                 29                   29                  104

2.             China                   38                 27                   23                     88

3.             UK                       29                 17                   19                     65

4.              Russia                 24                 26                   32                     82

5.             Germany              11                 19                    14                     44


But you will notice that this ranking is on the number of Gold medals. If you rank countries by the total number of medals won, then Russia is third with 82 medals and the UK moves down to fourth place with 65.  Then again, maybe it is not fair to rank each medal the same. Surely a Gold medal should be worth more than a Silver. So you can give a weight to each medal like this: a gold is worth three points, silver two points and bronze one point.  After crunching the numbers, the result is still the same. Russia is third with 156 points and UK fourth with 140 points. For some other countries it makes a more dramatic difference. South Korea won 13 gold medals and relatively few medals of other rank. They score 5th on the “Gold only” ranking but only 10th on the weighted points method.

There are further steps to you can take to come up with a fair method of deciding who really won. Not all countries are the same size. Large countries have a larger pool of talent to pick from. So maybe a fairer method would be to adjust for population size and measure  medal haul per head of population. If you do this the ranking becomes:

Olympic medals per capita

  1. Grenada
  2. Jamaica
  3. Bahamas
  4. New Zealand
  5. Trinidad and Tobago
  6. Montenegro

Then again, since training top level athletes is expensive, it might be fairer to adjust for a country’s wealth rather than population size. If you look at the medals to GDP ratio then Granada and Jamaica are still at the top but the rest all change change:

Olympic medals to GDP ratio

  1. Grenada
  2. Jamaica
  3. North Korea
  4. Mongolia
  5. Georgia
  6. Kenya

There is another possible factor that might distort the results: team size. If you enter lots of athletes then you are likely to win more medals. So if you adjust for the size of the olympic team that was sent to the games the table looks like this :

Olympic medals to olympic team size ratio

  1. China
  2. Jamaica
  3. Iran
  4. Botswana
  5. USA
  6. Ethiopia

All of which goes to show that if you play with the data enough then everyone is a winner. Maybe a better conclusion is that sport is about athletes competing and that the glory should belong to the individual not the country. In other words, all the arguments about which “country” was the winner are merely a catataxic distraction. The spirit of the competition lies at level one (the person) not level two (the nation). Nationalistic triumphalism hijacks the very essence of the competition. Maybe things have not changed that much since Hitler’s Berlin Games of 1936.

All of the above examples are merely reshuffling the order of existing countries as recognised by the Olympic Organising Committee.  We can highlight the catataxic issues at the heart of the debate by playing with the concept of “country” which is much more flawed than you might think. Let’s returning to the Scottish example we started with. Scots athletes won 13 medals, but this includes team medals.  If you exclude the team sports (show jumping, gymnastics, rowing, canoe slalom, tennis doubles, team cycling) where the team was not 100% Scottish then you are left with only 3 medals – two golds ( Hoy and Murray)  and silver in swimming from Jamieson. Not too encouraging if Scotland competes under the blue saltire flag in Rio in 2016. If you want start practicing gymnastics here are some of the best gymnastics mats for home.

Would Scots athletes automatically be part of Team Scotland? Not necessarily. Northern Ireland sets an interesting precedent.  It is technically under the jurisdiction of the Olympic Council of Ireland, despite being part of the United Kingdom. Athletes from Northern Ireland can choose whether to join the Irish or UK Olympic team. There were three people in the team that won the Sprint Cycling medal for the UK: an Englishman, a Scotsman and a German (Phillip Hindes). Sounds like the beginning of a joke? Well, it is. The joke being nationalism in the Olympics.

I must confess to getting a small frisson of pleasure when I saw a medal ceremony with the three flags of the UK, New Zealand and Australia in gold, silver and bronze positions: they all had the union jack in at least part of the flag. One definition of a country is “a group of people who share the same flag”. If you were to recast the table so that all countries with a Union Jack in the flag were viewed as a single entity then then the supra-country “Union Jack Land” beats China with 42 gold medals and 113 medals overall.

Maybe can use a different definition of a country: territories that are united by a single head of state. The USA has President Obama. We can theoretically create  “Elizabethland”: those countries that have Queen Elizabeth II as Head of State.  This, amongst others, includes UK, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Jamaica, Barbados and Grenada.  The total medal haul is 143, of which 48 are gold, which puts this entity top of the list whichever way you count it. The USA is second with 105 and 46 respectively.

A third definition of country could be this: a group of territories that form a single economic entity with a single currency. In which case the Eurozone would be the overall winner by far with a total (weighted method) medal score of 276. This is possibly the only positive thing that can be said about membership of the Eurozone at present….



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