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‘War minus the shooting’: what the Olympic medal tally really tells us

With the London 2012 Olympic Games now over, what does the all-important gold medal tally tell us about global reputation, power and prestige?

Every four years, the summer Olympic Games end in revelry, anxiety or despondency for countries around the globe as they suffer from gold fever. While it is regrettable that Olympic team performances seem to be under such microscopic scrutiny, with national pride too often overshadowed by patriotic excesses, the colour of medals and their accumulation (or otherwise) can shine some light on the “globalympic” quest for international prestige through sport.

Here is a table that focuses on the first five “places” in the raw medal tally for the past 20 years and below is a graph displaying that data:

So what’s behind the success of the winning countries? There are complex models for analysing Olympic medal performance; some rudimentary points can be made here. First, the top five medal-winning teams over the past six Olympics have either been advanced industrialised nations or, as in the case of China, a rapidly growing economy (now the second largest in the world). The odd exception was Cuba in 1992 (ranked five), but this outlier has not been repeated. Expenditure on high-performance Olympic sport is undoubtedly a factor; the improved position of Great Britain in Beijing and London can be attributed, partly, to increased funding stemming from the UK’s National Lottery.

Population is an overrated medal factor: Olympic powerhouses China (1) and the US (3) are two of the world’s largest countries in numbers of people, but India (2), Indonesia (4), Pakistan (6), Nigeria (7) and Bangladesh (8) are scarcely noticeable on the Olympic medal tally. Culture is, I suspect, an underrated medal factor. Some countries focus on a narrow spectrum of sports, with India (cricket) and Brazil (soccer) examples of nations wherein the full range of Olympic events has little traction. However, resources are just as pivotal as cultural preferences. In the US, where the national obsessions are the NFL, NBA, MLB and college football, universities have world-leading resources in track and field, swimming and so on. What is more, Title IX, American legislation from 1972 that provides funding for female athletes in higher education, has had an empowering affect on women training to reach the American Olympic team.

That said, over the past decade China has been perhaps the heaviest investor in preparing Olympic athletes. Although the government does not publicise such figures, unofficial reports suggest, for example, that “the cost of grooming China’s new Olympic swimming star, Sun Yang, amounted to 10 million yuan ($1.57 million) over the past two years”, while high-profile Australian swim coach, Denis Cotterell, has hinted at receiving hefty sums of money to train Chinese swimmers.

Indeed, one of the key trends from the past 20 years is the rising power of China, and to a lesser degree the neighbouring economic powerhouses of Japan and Korea at the Olympics. Whereas the US has maintained a dominant position, and was once challenged for this by Russia, the new key player is China, which now fields athletes in a wider variety of sports than in the 20th century. At London, the team performances of Russia (fourth) and Germany (sixth) have fallen, supplanted by Great Britain (third) and Korea (fifth) respectively. Hence this is not a simple case of European decline and Asian advancement.

Looking briefly at Australia, whose team performance at London has attracted much wailing and gnashing of teeth from the AOC and the media, its Olympic team has been strong and steady — particularly for a nation ranked 52 in global population: 1992 (10th), 1996 (seventh), 2000 (fourth), 2004 (fourth), 2008 (sixth), and London (10th).  Indeed, the most recent result is hardly cause for embarrassment: Australia’s total number of 35 medals was, for example, higher than Korea (fifth place and a total of 28 medals), France (seventh place and a total of 33 medals), Italy (eighth place and a total of 28 medals), and Hungary (ninth place and a total of 17 medals). Once again, the allure of gold as the barometer of success means that countries with an abundance of silver and bronze, such as Australia and Japan (11th place and 37 medals), have appeared to perform rather modestly.

Of course, all this focus on nations in the top echelons of the medal count diverts attention away from exciting performances by athletes from developing countries. For example, the extraordinary accomplishments of Jamaican sprinters — who captured 12 medals on the track — would be lost by a simplistic obsession with overall medal numbers according to nation. At the end of the day, what makes the Olympics memorable is the feats of outstanding people, such as Usain Bolt, irrespective of their country of origin. After all, if we are to read the Olympic charter literally, the Games are meant to be “competitions between athletes in individual or team events and not between countries”. But in a globalympic world of sport, where the luminosity of medals is claimed by countries as a symbolic measure of their international status, prowess and prestige, the feats of individuals are unlikely to be disentangled from gilded patriotism.Of course, the world’s obsession with winning at sport is not new. Such was the emphasis upon victory at the ancient Olympics that only the winner of an event was recognised. The notion of place getters, and indeed the awarding of medals, is an invention of the modern Olympics, though the combination of gold, silver and bronze medals was not introduced until 1912. Intriguingly, the Olympic charter states that the Games are “competitions between athletes in individual or team events and not between countries”; it also says that “The IOC and the OCOG shall not draw up any global ranking per country”. In practice, though, neither of these mantras holds true: National Olympic Committees (NOCs) organise teams to represent their country, while governments and media focus intensely on the medal haul of their nation’s athletes.

Globalympism” is surprisingly recent. Many countries were not part of the Olympic Games in the early years, and some did not become seriously involved until much later. For example, the Soviet Union did not enter the Olympics until 1952, after which the Games became an instrument of Cold War propaganda. The Soviet versus US competitions were, as George Orwell once opined, “war minus the shooting”. The two Chinas feuded with the IOC about their involvement, with both the People’s Republic of China and Chinese Taipei (Taiwan) not actively participating until 1984. Today, every developed country is a regular competitor at the Olympics, and the symbolic pecking order associated with national medal performances is front and centre in media-generated raw medal tallies. Although the “value” of particular medals can be interpreted in different ways, the usual convention is to arrange team hierarchy in respect of gold medals, irrespective of the volume of silver and bronze. Ironically enough, the Olympic website features medal tables that mirror this approach. What has emerged from this “gold fever” is mediated rhetoric that world-class performances — notably silver and bronze — are tantamount to national disappointment.

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  • 1
    muncher
    Posted Monday, 13 August 2012 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    On a side note, I noticed that the US , when they were behind in the gold tally to China, ranked countries on total medals won, which surprisingly, showed the US on top.

  • 2
    wamut
    Posted Monday, 13 August 2012 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

    Hmmm so this is an article about Olympic medal tallies that argues that we are being misled about the true nature of Olympic achievements by focussing unduly on Olympic medal tallies. *scratches head*

    I understand your point and agree with it too, but it might be nice to also just get out there and celebrate/promote the lesser recognised Olympic achievements: E.g. Gabon’s first ever medal (in Taekwondo). The Bahamas awesome defeat of the Americans in the 4x4oom men’s relay. Kirani James 400m win for Grenada (with a population of 110,000!). Iceland’s men’s handball team going through the preliminary round undefeated. Montenegro winning their first ever medal with a silver in women’s handball. East Timor’s two marathoners completing the course for the first time. Botswana’s first ever medal. Oksana Chusovitina competing in her sixth Olympics in gymnastics as a 37 year old mother.

    Also - factual nitpicking - I thought it was the St Louis games in 1904 where they first did the gold/silver/bronze thing.

  • 3
    zut alors
    Posted Monday, 13 August 2012 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    …the luminosity of medals is claimed by countries as a symbolic measure of their international status, prowess and prestige…’

    The medal count also indicates the access to better diet and nutrition by the wealthy nations. In my opinion a nation’s status should be dependant on how smart its citizens are and their contribution to solving global problems (eg: pollution, disease, equitable food distribution, societal dysfunction etc).

    Olympic medals? Fools’ gold.

  • 4
    Noodle Bar
    Posted Monday, 13 August 2012 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    Maybe everyone should transfer all their defence spending to olympics funding. Or deploy members of the armed forces into various sports. Actually I’m not enchanted by the bloated expenditure in either sector.

  • 5
    mattsui
    Posted Monday, 13 August 2012 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

    I reckon all the athletes should be forced to live on the sponsors’ products (Macca’s ‘n’ coke) for the durartion of the games. Chow down on a super-sized cow arse sandwich and a bucket of sweet fizzy water, then we’ll see how they run.

  • 6
    Alan Davies
    Posted Monday, 13 August 2012 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

    Daryl. Great post. Do you have the total medal count by sex and country? Betsy Stevenson reckons US women did extraordinarily well, demonstrating the importance of Title IX.

  • 7
    Scott
    Posted Monday, 13 August 2012 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    US team - Women made up 50.7% of the team but won 56% of the medels.

    Australian women also performed well. They made up 45% of our team but won 57% of the Australan medals.

  • 8
    wamut
    Posted Monday, 13 August 2012 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

    @Alan it was certainly the case in the sprinting which is traditionally a real strength for US athletes. American men only managed one gold - in the 110m hurdles - whereas their women won the 4x100, 4x400, 200m, 400m and the 400m hurdles. American men didn’t even win medals in the 200m, 400m or 400m hurdles. American women and men did equally well in the swimming however. Swimming and athletics is where America wins most of its medals.

    The final figures for USA:

    Men - 17 gold, 15 silver, 13 bronze
    Women - 29 gold, 14 silver, 15 bronze

    It’s may not terribly conclusive when you consider that some countries still send male dominated teams. Australian women also got more medals than the men:

    Men - 4 gold, 7 silver, 4 bronze
    Women - 3 gold, 9 silver, 8 bronze

  • 9
    Hamis Hill
    Posted Monday, 13 August 2012 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

    How many medals did the denizens of Olympus win in these latest games?
    Did they give a damn about gold?
    The great speculation of the original games was that the gods would compete and sometimes be hard to distinguish from the mere mortals so god-like did these athletes performances appear.
    So now the gods of Olympus live in Washington or Beijing? Counting their gold?

  • 10
    Scott
    Posted Monday, 13 August 2012 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

    I think with the 4th largest team at the olympics we should have done a lot better. On an athlete adjusted medal table (using linear regression to find the relationship between athlete numbers and total medals and then calculating the difference between predicted medals and actual), we were definitely the 4th most underperforming team, just beaten by Spain (worst), Poland and Canada.

  • 11
    Bohemian
    Posted Monday, 13 August 2012 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

    Do you wanna know the truth? Really!
    Well the truth is that since WWII Australia does less than half as well in the Olympics under Labor Governments as Liberal Govts. It must be a national demoralisation issue I guess. Read on:

    LABOR JINXES MEDAL TALLY EVERY TIME!
    The message is clear. If you want Australia to do well at the Olympics, make sure the ALP is not in power. Under Labor governments Australia has performed, in terms of medals won, less than half as well as under Liberal Governments since WW2 when Liberal and Labor became the two major choices.
    Games Gold Total Rank Govt
    1948 London 2 13 14 ALP
    1952 Helsinki 6 11 9 LIB
    1956 Melbourne 13 35 3 LIB
    1960 Rome 8 22 5 LIB
    1964 Tokyo 6 18 8 LIB
    1968 Mexico City 5 17 9 LIB
    1972 Munich 8 17 6 LIB
    1976 Montreal 0 5 32 ALP/LIB
    1980 Moscow 2 9 15 LIB
    1984 Los Angeles 4 24 14 ALP
    1988 Seoul 3 14 15 ALP
    1992 Barcelona 7 27 10 ALP
    1996 Atlanta 9 41 7 LIB
    2000 Sydney 16 58 4 LIB
    2004 Athens 17 49 4 LIB
    2008 Beijing 14 46 6 LIB/ALP
    2012 London 7 35 10 ALP

    Mean Olympic Ranking post WW2 excluding London.

    LIBERAL GOVERNMENT 6.3
    LABOR GOVERNMENT 13.2

    NB The analysis excludes those Olympic years when government changed during the preceding four year period.

  • 12
    gikku
    Posted Tuesday, 14 August 2012 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

    Silver is for the first loser.

  • 13
    dyspnoeia
    Posted Tuesday, 14 August 2012 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    I liked Lauren Jackson’s call on the women’s basketball bronze (which she called ‘dirty gold”):

    wtte that getting the bronze was more of a high than the silver, because they actually had to win their last match to grab a bronze, rather than losing to get silver in the Final.

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