Weighing Olympic gold

Robert Hardaway is a professor of law at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law.

Is the U.S. winning the Olympics?

The United States (or more precisely, the U.S. news media) have unilaterally chosen to rank countries’ overall performance according to which nation has won the most total medals. Not surprisingly, under this standard, the U.S. may come out on top. The media of most other countries, however, rank nations according to the number of gold medals only, which puts China far ahead.

Assuming the medal trends hold, which country will have actually won when the Olympics wrap up Sunday? Some tout the fact that nobody knows for sure as a positive aspect of the Games. Terry Rhoads, managing director of a Shanghai-based sports consulting firm, for instance, told MSNBC that the ambiguity leaves “everyone feeling good about the Olympics and both nations able to say they won.”

That’s a little bit like allowing each NFL team to choose its own standard for winning: scoring the most points or gaining the most yardage. I don’t know that such a system would leave anyone -- least of all football fans -- feeling good.


Still, Rhoads’ sentiment will doubtless appeal to those who decry competition in general as destructive. The same impulse fuels the trend today in many schools to award ribbons and trophies to everyone for participation, rather than singling out a winner. Avoiding the recognition of excellence is generally justified on grounds that it preserves everyone’s self-esteem.

I would debate whether such a policy prepares students even for the rigors of everyday life, let alone the Olympics, the pinnacle of human competition. And yet, even at that high level, no one can agree on a winner.

Many would simply avoid the problem by reverting to the official Olympic premise that the Games are contests among individuals rather than nations. But it’s a bit late in the game for that. Although the International Olympic Committee has never officially recognized national standings, newspapers and sportscasters around the world are toting up countries’ cumulative medal counts day after day.

A practical solution -- if one can get the sports media to concur on anything -- is to start the count over with a method employed by the British press during the 1908 Games in London. That year, British reporters calculated national standings based on a point system -- five for gold, three for silver and one for bronze. (A three-two-one point distribution seems fairer to me -- is one gold truly worth five bronzes? -- but I’d bow to the historical precedent.)

Nevertheless, application of the British point system wouldn’t help the U.S. in Beijing this Olympic year. As of late Thursday, the U.S. had won 99 medals, including 30 gold, while China had won 83 medals, including 46 gold. Using the 1908 point system, China would top the standings with 297 points, compared with 289 points for the U.S. (The race would be tighter under a three-two-one point system, but China would still come out on top.)


Either way, the overseas method of considering only gold medals is clearly deficient. It raises the obvious question: If only gold counts, why bother awarding silver and bronze medals at all? As it is, countries such as China and Russia eschew serious training in events in which they are likely to win only bronze and silver medals. Instead, they concentrate efforts where they have a chance of winning gold. Further, this gold-only tabulation sends a message to the silver and bronze medalists that their efforts were futile, their accomplishments unworthy of any recognition whatsoever in the national standings.


The U.S. system is also deficient, however, in that it illogically gives equal weight to both gold and bronze medals -- one reason why it’s been rejected by the rest of the world.

Re-implementation of the 1908 point system would be a reasonable compromise, but its most important feature would be the promotion of the true Olympic spirit of fair competition.



How they rank

The top three medal-winning countries in Beijing as of late Thursday, and how they would score using a 1908 British system.

*--* -- -- -- Point -- Gold Total system Country medals medals (5-3-1) U.S. 30 99 289 China 46 83 297 Russia 30 51 148 *--*