I’m as big a supporter of national pride as anyone, but the constant blaring of Olympic Medal Counts reminds me of that phrase “ugly American.” Since we fielded the biggest team by about 20%, and devote massive resources to sports, the statistic seems pretty crass. Raw volume numbers under those conditions are rarely a reflection of anything beyond size. I wondered whether there might be more fair ways to address medal performance.
As of Tuesday, the U.S. had won 85 medals, 28 gold. But how about if we adjust for the number of athletes, population, or resources? Numbers people would want to know these things. Craig Nevill-Manning has created a lovely site, medalspercapita.com, which did much of this work for me.
When you start looking on an adjusted basis, small countries—with a small denominator—pop up at the top. (Also, note that a weighted medal count, with points for medal type, is most useful). Grenada with its one medal, a silver by the amazing Kirani James, leads with that one medal in medals per capita, per team size, and per GDP. Kirani won the 400 in London and was heavily favored; in one of the great races of these games, Wayde van Niekierk of South Africa blazed ahead of him and former Beijing champion LaShawn Merritt in world-record time, the only medal ever won by a runner in the outside lane, unable to see anyone behind him the entire race. James’s silver medal puts Grenada “tops” in several medal counts, when adjusted for size.
The top countries in medals per capita were, in order, Grenada, Bahamas, New Zealand, and Jamaica. The U.S. ranked only 41st (out of 100-plus countries). New Zealand fields strong teams in several sports, from swimming to track and field to rugby. Similarly, Jamaica has built a stronghold in sprinting with big names like Usain Bolt and Shelley Fraser-Price medaling in the last three Games. The small island country has such pride in their stars that when they win, it’s pretty much a national holiday.
Ranked in terms of GDP, results are similar. Top countries are Grenada, Fiji, North Korea, Jamaica, the Bahamas and Kenya—poor and small countries who succeeded despite obstacles. The Kenyans and Ethiopians, countries poor and small, generate powerful athletes that specialize in distance running. In Ethiopia, a single family—the Dibabas—have dominated for the last dozen years, winning seven medals across just three different races (1500, 5000, 10000). According to the live feed commentator Peter Donegal, when Tirunesh Dibaba, triple medalist in the women’s 10,000, got married a few years ago, the event was carried live on Ethiopian television and 500,000 people gathered in downtown Addis Ababa to celebrate.
Ranked in terms of medals per GDP, the US ranks 57th.
On a per team size basis, the U.S. actually does well—ranked fourth so far in Rio. Other nations that rank high are China, Russia, the United Kingdom, and France. The high rank of France both in team size (sixth behind China) and success surprised me, but on the other hand I have watched more than my share of Fencing and Judo, and those French athletes were strong in those sports. One other effective team is from Cuba—a top-ten nation of medals per team despite not sending a very large team. They also are proud competitors in specific sports—excellent at boxing, judo, and volleyball—I for one am sad not to seem them able to compete at baseball. (Which, with softball, is returning to the Games in a few years).
One Medal – One Crazy Big National Party
Because of the sheer volume of medals won in America, we often forget what a huge deal it can be for countries to win only one medal, or even their first. Three countries were especially proud of their athletes in Rio—Puerto Rico, Singapore, and Fiji.
Serena Williams is one of the greatest tennis players and Olympians—winning medals all the way back to 1996. But Rio was not her time; after winning both singles and doubles at Wimbledon just last month, she lost her early match. This helped make the Women’s tennis tournament in Rio an exciting series, and Monica Puig Puerto Rico bested the field to become Olympic champion. Despite competing as a team for 68 years, this was Puerto Rico’s first gold medal.
In the pool, the U.S. has won almost a third of its medals in swimming (including a high portion from Northern California, from my alma mater Cal—Nathan Adrian & Dana Vollmer, Go Bears!). Michael Phelps is the greatest Olympian we will ever see—make no mistake about that. He has dominated swimming for 20 years, particularly as a specialist in the butterfly.
Anyone ever tried to swim the butterfly? I have been swimming regularly most of my life, and the dolphin kick and butterfly arm combination is so hard to do, I usually end up with a mouthful of water having moved about a centimeter. Of course, it’s easier if you’re like a palm tree rather than Tweedle Dum.
In Rio, in the 100 meter butterfly, Phelps was upstaged in a blazing race where he tied for second with two other favorites. The winner from Singapore, Joseph Schooling, had idolized Michael since he met him as a youngster a dozen years ago. Out-touching an outstanding field of swimmers, he brought Singapore their first gold medal, and their first medal ever.
Lastly, we have the exhilarated play of Fiji in Rugby Sevens. From my teeny rugby knowledge, limited to the movie Invictus, I knew that New Zealand and South Africa were powerhouses. Rugby it turns out is the national sport of Fiji, and as their team dominated on their way to the medal match, there were shots of Fijians stopping in the street to watch TV feeds, the way we react to the Super Bowl. I loved the nonstop action of soccer combined with the scoring and all out “chase” that takes play in American football. With no pads.
The Fijian men just pushed past the plucky unheralded Americans in an early round, but really shined against Great Britain in the gold-medal match, scoring with gleeful abandon for a final score of 43-7. Their fans were ecstatic, cheering with the same wild abandon in those powder blue wigs. Rugby is now my new favorite game.
Bias in the Counts; Bias in the Feed
Which brings me to one last Olympic thought after these 16 days of glory. NBC’s American TV coverage – especially the prime time coverage – has been awful. As has become obvious by now, I am an Olympics junkie. I bought the “triple play” back in Barcelona so I could watch as much as possible. I scheduled my work vacation to stay home and watch. This year, as Live streams have become readily available, I’ve been able to design my own TV feed. And the international commentary on the Live streams has shown how poorly executed the night time programs have become.
Keep in mind that the West Coast feed from NBC is never live for us; it is always a repeat of the East Coast feed which occurred three hours earlier. Even when the Olympics were directly north of us in Vancouver, this was true. NBC has had hours to create a great show for us. So to show key events like the gymnastics finals after 11 pm, without prime time medal ceremonies, is absurd. To show instead every single swimming race, heat, warm up, that possibly exists was not good television or a good representation of the breadth of the Games. Again, I’m very proud of our American performance (and our Berkeley athletes!) but is it that interesting of a sport that we needed more than half the nighttime coverage devoted to it? When was the last time anybody watched a swimming event (that didn’t have a family member in it) outside of the Summer Olympics?
Worse, half the program was jibberjabber – talking heads, repetitive profiles, twitter discussions, and shots over and over of people walking around thinking about the race. I know it was somewhat interesting that Michael Phelps made a frowny face when that other racer started dancing around him in the warm up room, but did we really need to see that, and repeated and repeated and repeated? When we could have seen another match, another race, another event?
Did anyone even see Kayla Harrison’s domination of her four judo opponents for her repeat gold medal from 2012? She threw all four competitors in less time combined than an entire match. Does everyone know that the fencing team won multiple medals (bronze, silver) in women’s and men’s teams? Do they know that the US team won a Dressage medal – I mean, Dressage! We suck at Dressage! Has anyone discovered the delicious announcing by the Scotsman in Greco Roman wrestling. If you get a chance, go track down a couple matches on the feed and give it a listen – his accent and colorful phrases are a hoot! The Aussies and “kiwis” called the rugby matches and were informative and enthusiastic, no matter the team. (Well, when Australia was playing, there was a touch of extra excitement.) Even the three Americans calling the gymnastics on the live feed provided such better information, and about all athletes not just the Americans, that those feeds were ten times better than the prime time work.
The Modern Pentathlon starts tomorrow and I know NBC won’t give it a mention since it doesn’t involve any flip turns. But I for one can’t wait to see it on the Live Feed.