Who’s actually winning the Olympics? With the events winding down, this is the question to which we inevitably turn. After all these days of dramatic competition, all we really want to know now is, which country is the best?
But check out nbcolympics.com and you’ll see a different answer. There the U.S. leads the rankings table.
The winner is: Norway – or the U.S.?
NBC, on the other hand, is looking at total medal count, regardless of the actual color of those medals.
Why the difference? You might be cynical and note that NBC (and the Washington Post, for that matter) has picked an approach that generally favors the U.S. It’s not only this Olympics where the U.S. ends up on top in a total medal count but not a gold medal one. For the Vancouver and Beijing Games as well, using total medals skyrockets the U.S. team to the top of the pack.
But the fact of the matter is that, as far as the International Olympic Committee is concerned, neither approach is right — or wrong. The IOC doesn’t endorse either method of coming up with a winner, because it doesn’t endorse the idea of having a ranking at all. “The IOC and the OCOG [Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games] shall not draw up any global ranking per country,” reads the Olympic charter.
And both approaches come with their own logic. After all, Poland ranks 10th based on golds, yet with only four total medals it doesn’t seem quite right to place it ahead of a country like Sweden, which has earned 14.
On the other hand, the Netherlands is sitting at fifth in total medals, but with only six of them gold, should it rank ahead of Germany and its eight golds?
With the IOC silent on the issue, the Internet has stepped up to the plate (or whatever the equivalent winter sports metaphor might be) with its own, slightly more creative, ideas on how to pick an Olympic winner.
The winner is: Russia
One of the most popular ideas for remedying the ranking problem is through a weighted table, counting all the medals earned but assigning more value to a gold medal than to a silver and more to a silver than a bronze. For example, a weighting of 3-2-1 (gold-silver-bronze) is one option that has been suggested.
Chris Chase at USA Today seems to have put a great deal of thought into how to assign weights, and he came up with a 5-3-1 system. Using his ranking currently brings Russia to the top of the pack. The U.S. drops to third, because it has earned more bronze than other types of medals.
Is this really a better approach? Chase ended his attempt to create a more accurate ranking by despairing in the futility of the whole exercise:
I’ve been tinkering with medal count formulas for years … in hopes of finally discovering the best medal table. And you know what? That medal table doesn’t exist.
His conclusion hasn’t stopped others from putting in valiant attempts though.
The winner is: the U.S.
How about a ranking based on science? The Space Telescope Science Institute reckons that a smarter way to weight the medals is by, well, their actual weights. Or, rather, by the density of the metals. Those would be 19.30 grams per cubic centimeter (gold), 10.49 (silver) and 8.50 (bronze) — but you knew that already, I’m sure.
That pops the U.S. back up to the top of the ranking list. Although it’s not clear that there’s anything inherently better about weighting medals by density, especially because they aren’t even necessarily made of their namesake metals.
The winner is: Slovenia
One of the problems that many alternative rankings set out to solve is that of fairness. How can a small country be expected to keep pace with a big one, they ask. Surely the results should be normalized to take into account a country’s size?
Enter medalspercapita.com, a site that ranks total medals per capita and total medals by GDP, balancing things out by each country’s wealth.
True to their purpose, these rankings give smaller countries a shot at glory. When GDP is factored into the site’s latest medal totals (it lags a little behind the official results), Slovenia ends up at the top, followed by Belarus and Latvia.
The site’s per capita ranking, on the other hand, highlights just how impressive Norway has been at these Olympics. According to the table, Norway has brought home one medal for every 238,366 people in the country.
The winner is: Russia
Still haven’t found the ranking that makes you happy? A site called B Podium has one of the oddest rankings available, recognizing “those fashionable athletes who find their ways to fourth, fifth and sixth places” – the “coveted” B Podium. As opposed to the A Podium where the winners go. Get it?
It turns out that if coming in just slightly behind the winners is the cool thing to do, consider Russia Miles Davis. Russian athletes have just barely missed a medal 28 times as of the site’s latest update.
The B Podium rankings also rocket Italy to sixth place, its highest showing in any ranking so far. The country has only eight medals, but 14 near misses.
The winner is: The Netherlands
Finally, leave it to reddit to come up with a ranking that makes all those who aren’t atop it want to curl up in a ball and cry. Take a look at this chart showing just how dominant the Netherlands has been so far in speedskating. It shows how Dutch skating teams and clubs would have fared if they had competed as countries. The answer is, pretty darn good.
The winner is: Whoever you darn well please
All these rankings got me thinking about all the other ways to try and parse out the results. Maybe medals per athlete entered (winner: the Netherlands). Or percent of medals earned that were gold (winner: Poland). Or ratio of medals to top six finishes (winner: Belarus).
When it comes down to it, there’s no real way to determine which country is winning, and that’s just the way the IOC likes it.
Which may be a good thing. It leaves you free to simply come up with the ranking that puts your favorite country at the top — even if that ranking is based on, let’s say, the height of each nation’s tallest mountain (yes, that one exists too).
So, [insert your preferred country here], congratulations to you on your upcoming Olympic victory!