Counting Medals

There’s an almost unhealthy obsession in some circles (the print media especially) about the “medal count” in the Olympics: which country has the most medals. Admittedly, it’s an easy shorthand for reporting the results, but no one who knows anything about the Olympics really likes it. The bigger, wealthier countries can obviously send more athletes, so they’re naturally going to win more medals.

One could make a list of “Medals per Capita”, but even that has some problems. A country might not, for whatever reason, be particularly interested in competing in the Olympics. India is the best example here. The nation of over a billion people just doesn’t seem to care that much about the Olympics. It’s not that they don’t have sports – if cricket were an Olympic sport, you’d KNOW they’d be all over it.

What if we did a list of medals per athlete sent (or athletes per medal, so we’re not dealing with tiny fractions)? Well, there are a LOT of team sports, and in some disciplines it’s possible for an athlete (e.g. gymnastics) to enter more than one competition.

How about medals per competition entered? This would be a kind of “medal efficiency” – how good your country is at winning medals. That just might work, but it would really smell of jingoism. The exact sort of thing we’re hoping to avoid. And don’t forget that the IOC has rules about how many athletes you can enter in any given area.

And what about the medals themselves? Isn’t a gold medal more “valuable” than a silver or bronze? What weight – if any – do you give to the type of medal?

It’s all a mess.

But I do know that there are some medals that carry a bit more meaning than any others.

Hidylin Diaz (women’s weightlifting, 55kg division), Flora Duffy (women’s triathlon), Mutaz Essa Barshim (men’s high jump) and Fares Elbakh (men’s weightlifting, 96kg division) won their country’s first ever gold medals (Philippines, Bermuda, and a pair for Qatar).

Pollina Guryeva (silver, women’s weightlifting, 59kg division) and Hugues Fabrice Zango (bronze, men’s triple jump) brought home medals for the first time to Turkmenistan and Burkina Faso. Alessandra Perilli (women’s trap shooting), Gian Marco Berti (silver, mixed trap shooting – with Alessandra Perilli), and Myles Amine (bronze, men’s freestyle wrestling, 86kg division) all brought home medals to San Marino.

Not a single one of them should have to pay for drinks in their home countries ever again.

(For the record, there were 206 countries or delegations at these Olympics. 93 of them brought medals home – 65 of them earned a gold.)

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