Abolishing Olympic Medals

Canadians like to think that their 10 gold medals at the winter Olympics puts them ahead of the Americans with 9 golds. Americans like to think that their 28 total medals puts them ahead of Canada’s mere 25. So who beat whom at the Sochi Olympics?

Canadians have become very smug in their dismissal of what they perceive to be American propaganda of presenting the Olympic standings. Canadians proudly proclaim that the rest of the world goes by total golds and that America, the only country in the world to do otherwise, does so only because it makes them look better. In truth, it was only 4 years ago that Canada also practiced this procedure; that is until Canada started having the most golds in the Olympics and the media wanted to make the country look better by placing them in first. In contrast, the Americans have always stuck by this standard and it really has nothing to do with trying to make them look better. Interestingly enough, America (and Canada) originally adapted this system as a result of egalitarianism. They did not want to send the message that the only acceptable result was coming in first place, and that everyone else is a loser.

Out of the 50+ times the Olympics have taken place in modern times, there have only been 6 games where the country with the most golds was not also the country with the most total medals. Seeing how this feat took place in 1896, 1912, 1964, 2002, 2008 and 2010; it’s easy to see how nobody cared about this issue until the 21st century.

Many people like to point to the official Olympic website which orders its standings by golds. However, according to the IOC’s own charter, they have no official Olympic medal ranking system and as demonstrated by many statements from IOC officials, there is  no preference between ranking states by total golds or by total medals. In fact, it wasn’t even until 1992 that the IOC recognized counting medals by any system at all.

The first group of complainers about the Olympic standings are the weighters. They believe that this is a stupid argument and that the Olympic standings should be determined by a formula where each medal is worth a different amount. Whether its 9-3-1, 3-2-1, 4-2-1, 5-3-1, the main argument is that each medal is obviously worth more or less than others and should be displayed as such. The two main issues with this are figuring out how exactly to weigh each medal and dealing with the arbitrary cut off of only having 3 medals – Why is 4th place being penalized?

Although this does solve some problems, it does not even get to the root of the Olympic medal issue.

Russia had the most golds and the most total medals in these Olympics; they also win by any possible weighted medal formula. So Russia should ‘objectively’ win the Olympics right? Well not if you only include actual Russians in the tally. Ahn Hyun-Soo, Vic Wild, Tatiana Volosozhar; these are just the names of some of the individuals who Russia naturalized as citizens in order to boast their medal tally. Just under half of Russia’s 13 gold medalists were not actually Russian.

Ahn was born, learned to skate and spent his whole life growing up in South Korea. That is until the age of 22, after he had already won three gold medals and one bronze that he ‘decided’ to move to Russia and compete for them. Ahn won another three golds and one bronze for Russia at the Sochi games. Same story for the rest of the athletes who ‘decided’ to compete for Russia in Sochi, winning medals. These people did not immigrate for a better life like normal do, but were simply sold to the highest bidder.

Dictatorships invest staggering amounts of money to enhance their Olympic performance, explaining the success that countries such as China, the Soviet Union and Cuba have at the games. It’s an easy and relatively cheap way to gain support both internally and externally for the ruling party. Although it’s easy to make fun of these disgusting dictatorships, does the West really have a leg to stand on? Sure, we don’t spend nearly as much on the games as these countries, but we still spend an inordinate amount of money just to increase our medal tally as well (while cutting the funding for those without a chance at Gold). Similar to dictatorships, these Western countries get no real conceivable benefit other than unabashed patriotism.

Is the West better justified in bingeing on the Olympics just because they have more money to spend in total? Does being a democracy somehow make certain economic investments more acceptable? In fact, that’s really it; according to a many different academic studies, Olympic success can be largely predicted by economic output and population size. Should a country’s Olympic performance be judged based on their population and economy? Some have started to rank countries by amount of medals per 10 million citizens, or billion of its GDP. Although this is mostly accurate, it ignores the political regimes of countries (the difference between an India and a China) and the sporting culture/ability in many states – because Ethiopians are actually better marathon runners than the rest of us.

The sports that happen to be in the Olympics are not necessarily universal sports. Different sports have different followings in different countries. Canadians grow up playing hockey, basketball, baseball, soccer and football. Norwegians grow up cross-country skiing. Norway being a better skiing nation than Canada does not really say much about Canadian’s natural ability to ski. Although all states prioritize athletics to a varying extent, there is a significant amount of ‘luck’ involved in having your country enjoy sports that happen to be in the Olympics.

Canada won 0 golds and 5 total medals when they hosted the Olympics in Calgary. Canada won 14 golds and 26 total medals when they hosted in Vancouver. The biggest difference was not a change in Canada’s ability, but simply the IOC adding more sports to the Olympics that Canada excelled at such as curling, ski jumping, snowboarding, and hockey.

Hockey is if not the, one of the biggest and most important sports in the winter Olympics. Canada is by a significant margin the best hockey country in the world. Speed skating is a pretty average sport in the Olympics with the Netherlands being by a significant margin the best country in the world at it. A country can win a maximum of two medals in hockey; Canada won gold in both. In speed skating alone, there are 63 medals awarded in 21 distinct events. The Netherlands won all 24 of their Olympic medals in speed skating.

Keep in mind that there are far more hockey players and hockey fans in the world in addition to far more money and resources invested in the sport. In what world does it make sense that speed skating is 10 times more valuable in the Olympics than hockey? In fact, the value is even higher than that when its taken into consideration that in almost all speed skating events, a country can submit multiple participants where as in hockey, a country can only submit one; in truth, the number is probably upwards of 20 times as valuable of a sport. If the IOC were awarding 63 medals in hockey, I’m damn sure that Canada would win every possible winter Olympics.

Cheer for your country in the Olympics but just be aware that having an emotional investment in any sort of medal ranking is ridiculous. There is no right or wrong medal count, just different arbitrary rankings of arbitrary things.