August 23, 2008

Especially over the first week of the Olympics, there has been quite the edit war going on over the appropriate method of ranking the medals table on Wikipedia. Even after it was decided that the default ranking should always be that of the International Olympics Committee (IOC) and the table itself made variably sortable, the issue refused to die. Almost without exception, the Americans in the discussion argued that the most logical method of listing was either by total medals or by some point evaluation; while just about everyone else argued for the status quo (most gold, the same way as the IOC releases results). It made no difference that the Wikipedia table could be sorted any way except by assigned points: it needs must be the default that complied. At one point, someone even raised a "quantity over quality" argument ... and called it just that.

In the process, I learned that most of the world sorted by gold medals (per the IOC listings), while for this Olympics and possibly some others most if not all media sources in the United States listed their results by total medal count.

Yet the only reason to argue about the relative value of medals is to assume that the IOC medal listings are intended to somehow place one nation's abilities, as expressed through the individual performances of its athletes, objectively and absolutely over another's. The IOC has not only avoided doing this, it has expressly spoken out against it. Thus any data released by the IOC should be seen as only a system of classification, not a system of valuation. In this context, the "gold-centric" system used by the IOC is as good for re-printing results as any other, and has the advantage of being the one used by the institution issuing the results.

Thus, the major underlying reason behind the entire discussion had nothing whatsoever to do with common usage or logical order or any of the many other reasons which had been mentioned. Rather, it had directly to do with which formatting would show one nation to best advantage over others, and especially over its closest rivals. That particular issue was probably much hotter this time around because of China's emergence as an Olympic power, reflecting its parallel emergence as a world economic and almost certainly military power -- and because it was China, the remaining Communist powerhouse of the world, it would be all the more important to the United States to achieve an ideological victory.

The IOC really should have known better. Into an environment of failing religion the Baron de Coubertin thought to revive the old Greek ideals of humankind, setting before the world a new beacon of physical striving in place of rising nationalism and rising wars: let the best of every nation compete in sports and not in combat. Had de Coubertin forgotten that the ancient Greeks themselves cast the quality of their city-states in the image of those representing them? It was probably a genie out of the bottle the moment the first Olympic flame was ever lit, but the Olympics have never been purely about the contestings of individuals, or even of teams. Rather, those individual showings have always been held up as somehow representative of the innate qualities of the nation itself.

All other things being equal, perhaps this conclusion might have some accuracy: but all other things are not equal. Is the medal of a team which had to qualify against fifty countries even to compete in the Olympics worth the same as the medal of a team which had to compete against seven? Is a world record all-out gold worth the same as a highly tactical gold (such as that won by the Ethiopians in the women's 5000 metres)? Is a heptathalon silver which has been acquired by the previous winner's having been disqualified worth the same as one won directly? Is a decathalon ten-event medal worth the same as its equivalent in a single sprint?

And even all these questions aside, all countries do not have the same population, all countries do not spend the same amount on their sports programmes (or even the same percentages of their GDPs), all countries do not have the same talent identification infrastructure, all countries don't even use the same banned drugs or masking agents for their athletes; and while most sports programmes can identify and perhaps even train a Phelps or a Bolt, no programme on earth can guarantee that one will arise in a particular country.

So while many countries in the world have wanted to know their standing relative to other countries, which measuring stick is used depends almost entirely on what one wishes to demonstrate, as well as what changes are desired for the future. Even what would seem to be an objective extrapolation stands on very shaky ground: does exceeding a predicted level of success guarantee a raise in funding, or undermine any perceived need? In all honesty, we don't even know whether throwing more money at a programme will guarantee higher results. China probably went as all-out as it is possible to go, these Olympics: and though it gained them quite a few, it did not gain them every gold medal. In fact, in some disciplines such as athletics, they were almost entirely shut out, while much poorer, tiny nations shone.

But again the question sticks up its head: who won the Olympics?

Even to suggest that a simple medal count explains nothing is to evoke the spectre of what is commonly mocked as the "self esteem" games, where everyone gains ribbons just for participating. Whatever it is, the Olympics is certainly not that: and yet the moment one dares suggest that to declare individual winners of events is a very far thing from declaring the country they represent to have won as well, many claim that this is simply avoiding acknowledging excellence.

I do acknowledge excellence: in the individuals and the teams involved. I recognise the institutions and structures which supported them in their quest: but ultimately it is the individuals and teams who compete, not their support structures. The support structure can help bring an athlete to a world class competitive level, but no one has ever measured that indefinable quality which suddenly makes an athlete bring out something truly superlative in competition -- or which causes the athlete who had always before consistently achieved world-best times to suddenly fade and not even make it out of the qualifying heats.

On Monday I will once again publish the medal totals and gold medals as compared against country population and GDP. This year I will also add a new statistic: comparing the number of medals/gold medals won with the number of athletes sent by the country. Whatever else, it might give a bit of perspective on a raw medal count, be it gold or otherwise.

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