How should countries be ranked at the Olympics? (Or should they?)

Categories: Community, Sports

[UPDATE: I've written some additions inspired by comments from the CBC Community.]

A great debate is raging in our Olympic stories' comments. CBC Community members have been arguing about how the countries should be ranked in our medal count and how well Canada is really doing at the Games.

Is Canada doing better than its lone Olympic gold medal, from Rosannagh MacLennan in trampoline, would have you believe? (Gregory Bull/Associated Press)This is an argument that surfaces at every Olympic Games: Should countries be ranked by number of medals won, or number of gold medals won?

The Associated Press ranks countries by total number of medals won, as does the CBC and the London 2012 broadcasters in Canada and the U.S., CTV and NBC. It's also how the Canadian Olympic Committee measures the success of its Own the Podium program.

The problem with this method of ranking is that it gives the medals equal worth. Gold, silver or bronze, they all mean the same to the total medal count. By this ranking, Canada is 11th as of the women's soccer bronze Thursday morning.

The BBC, the host broadcaster, and the International Olympic Committee rank countries by gold medals won. (Actually on London2012.com, the ranking is by gold medals by default, but you can switch it to total medals if you wish.)

The problem with this method is that medals other than gold are worth nothing at all. Canada has 14 medals at the Games but just one gold, and is ranked behind countries like Ehtiopia and Croatia that have just four medals, but two of them gold. By this ranking, Canada is 30th as of Thursday morning.

[UPDATE: In the comments, KindaRectangulr points out that it's not quite true that silver and bronze are worth "nothing at all." The number of silver medals is used to break ties between countries that have the same number of gold medals, and if two countries have the same number of gold and silver medals, the bronze medals are counted.]

To solve this dilemma, sports journalists have come up with points systems to give more mathematical weight to gold medals while still having silver and bronze count. None of these schemes is endorsed by any Olympic body.

The oldest of these points systems goes back to the first time London hosted the Olympics in 1908. The British press gave five points for a gold medal win, three for a silver and one for a bronze.

A century later, the New York Times used a similar system in response to criticism that its Olympic medals table was unfairly biased toward the United States. The U.S. won more medals than China, but China had won more gold medals. The Times' system gave four points for a gold, two for a silver and one for a bronze. By that count, China came out on top by 18 "medal points."

[UPDATE: In the comments, lastkozak writes, "There should be an analysis comparing the population size of the country, versus the GDP of the country, and the medals obtained." The Guardian newspaper in the U.K. has done exactly that, analyzing medal counts by population, GDP and Olympic team size.]

But officially, there is no ranking. The Olympic Charter states: "The IOC and the OCOG shall not draw up any global ranking per country."

How should countries be ranked at the Olympics? Does ranking by golds or total medals make more sense? Should more sports media use a points system? Let us know what you think.

(This survey is not scientific. Results are based on readers' responses.)

Tags: Community, Sports