The Olympic medal tally — more than meets the eye

The Olympics have just concluded. For 16 days of competition, Rio can now pay their $16 billion bill at leisure. For countries that didn’t have this lopsided balance sheet worry about, the battle was for a more transient legacy — bragging rights for the most successful nation at Olympics.

A quick look at the Olympics’ medal table shows the United States comfortably at the top. But wait, was Bahamas comparatively better?

Medal Tally

The official Rio medal table can be sorted and indeed even ‘mashed up’ with other information to produce some interesting variations. Some popular ranking variations are outlined below:

  • Total Count: This is a simple count of the total medals. It’s the easiest metric to understand and appeals to our primal preference for quantity — i.e. who has more. The main disadvantage is that it treats gold, silver and bronze as having equal ‘value’ i.e. does not reward quality. The other drawback is the lack of a built in ‘tie-break’ mechanism for separating nations who have similar total counts.
  • Gold Medal Count: This is the default sorting in the IOC table that literally reflects the podium order. Unlike a simple total tally, the different weightings for gold, silver and bronze medals give it an in-built ‘tie-break’ mechanism. It rewards quality over quantity. It also rewards higher quality achievement over relatively lower quality achievement. The disadvantage of this method is a bit hard to decipher because generally, at the top end, the team with the most gold medals usually also has the most total medals. For example, the USA had by far the most gold (46) and the biggest total (121). But if this correlation is absent, a handy debate is on the cards. For example, Great Britain had 27 gold medals and total medal tally of 67. China had just one less gold medal (26) but 3 more total medals (70). So which team performed better? Both can put forward convincing arguments.
  • Per capita or GDP: These types of rankings view Olympic performance as in the context of ‘potential capability’ — human resource (population), economic (GDP) etc. The advantage is the additional perspective it accounts for. This generally favours smaller nations. renada with just over 100,000 people got the most medals per capita and by GDP. Bahamas had the best gold medal count per capita. A pitfall of this approach is that population and GDP etc., are not always causal influences on medal counts. Ironically, proportions can raise interesting conundrums of their own. For example, Bahamas had one gold per 388019 people. With a population of just 66000 more people, the second placed Jamaica had 6 golds. So despite second place in the per capita gold medal rankings, most people would consider Jamaica as the more successful team of the two.
  • Cost per medal: In the age of targeted funding, this metric shows the effectiveness ratio of funding. For UK, each medal purportedly cost 4 million GBP. For Australia, it was AUD 12 million while for New Zealand it was NZD 8.8 million. However, given the different financial and competition profiles of different sports, this metric needs to be interpreted carefully.
  • Pierre de Coubertin medal? I’ve added this because it is the medal that best captures the Olympic spirit. So why not have a ranking of countries whose athletes have won this rarely awarded medal?


By reducing detailed measures to a sequence of ordinal numbers, rankings make it possible to evaluate complex information according to certain criteria. — Wikipedia

While rankings are useful, every ranking mechanism has its inherent strengths and pitfalls. These can be debated endlessly. While Americans went away with the lion’s share of the medals, the much (much) smaller Caribbean nations can also justifiably claim some bragging rights.

Apart from ranking mechanisms, two other issues further muddy the waters with regards to Olympic returns. The first is representation. If a country wins 10 medals, can the credit go fully to that country alone? In today’s world, many athletes train in other countries i.e. use facilities, expertise and resources not available in their country. Also recently, immigration, particularly that based on sporting merit, has also influenced the athletes that are fielded. Olympic medal output can therefore no longer be tied exclusively to the input provided by winning athletes’ countries. The second one is difference in sporting codes. Say a sport has 30 events (90 medals) while other has 7 events (i.e. 21 medals). Countries that are strong in or prioritize sports with lots of events, can also increase their medal count disproportionately. There are other factors but suffice to say, the country between medal count and country is not as linear as it seems.

Enumerating emotions

No metric is perfect and the more we dig underneath the numbers, the more impossibly complex it becomes to devise a ‘true’ ranking system. Indeed, if the perfect Olympic country ranking system was developed, it would probably be a 3 line long equation of academic interest only.

While reading about different medal counting mechanisms, I realized that metrics serve a wider purpose. They are key cogs in delivering a good customer experience. In many ways, metrics are like smoke and mirrors — valuable but ultimately dispensable instruments that contribute to a wider picture — the grand experience of a magician’s act.

Metrics mentally anchor a customer experience. Apple iPod is the classic example. Instead of selling 5Gb storage it sold ‘1000 song’ storage. The simpler the metric, the easier it is to understand, even if it doesn’t account for all idiosyncrasies. 5Gb will never store exactly 1000 songs. The value is not in the detail but in providing an easy to understand number that provides a visual image of the product. Metrics also provide structure for the customer experience. The Olympics are the best example of this. It takes the complex set of information and reduces it to 3 types of medals and one ranking evaluated against one weighted criteria (gold medal). This is similar to our schooling model where the progress of an entire term or year is summarized into a ‘report card’. It may not the most complete indicator of our overall progress and development, but is a tangible grade that represents a “receipt” and “talking point” for the term.

Good metrics measure what is important to an organization. They also summarize the customer experience in a succinct and appealing way. The (customer) emotions associated with the Olympics — inspiration, euphoria, achievement — are realized into podium finishes and ultimately reflected as the medal tally. The Olympics sell “achievement”. Their core product is “victory” — something that is publicly celebrated via a ranked podium finish. From this perspective, the gold medal sorted medal tally is the best ranking mechanism.

The biggest applause however should be reserved for how the Olympics have successfully employed a ranking mechanism that is simple, complements their customer experience and provides a perennial conversation topic for their product, before, during and even after it has been consumed.

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