Olympic Medal Reality Check, 2016
“US Exceeds all Expectations in Rio” crows a headline here in the US today. Um, maybe not so much.
This is my second Summer Olympics to offer a different way of looking at Olympic glory.
This post is not a commentary or criticism of the training, dedication, sweat, pain, and success of the individual athletes themselves. Every bit of praise to them, each one, even if their post-competition behavior was reprehensible. Each one earned her/his right to compete in the Olympics through bone-deep commitment, and earned whatever victories they achieved. Good for them!
Instead, this post seeks to serve as antidote to the bombardment of chauvinistic posturing that overlaid the TV coverage. This country seemed to crow about their athletes’ medals as if the country somehow could claim the glory of its athletes. I don’t mind a little ego attachment: the Icelandic soccer team in the Euros created a phenomenon that is very rare, and beautiful. But the jingoistic posturing of the US press was embarrassing to me, and I suspect many other countries had their own tiresome version of it.
Folks, it’s not about how many medals a country “won”. No country won any medals at all. Individual human beings won those medals. No country sweated for them. No country ran a step, or performed on the rings. No country broke a bone. The Olympic oath is to “the glory of sport” and not to the aggrandizement of national ego.
So here’s a different way of looking at the medal count, one I feel is more true to the spirit of the Olympics: medals by population. I took the medals won and divided by a multiple of 100,000 in the country. The results are eye-opening! Forget about the massive training programs and the most expensive coaches and the best technology available.
The winner of the Olympic medal race, just as in 2012, turns out to be — drum roll — Grenada. One medal, won by an athlete from a nation of 107,000 people. USA won 121 medals, which with a population of 324.1 million puts its medal accomplishment at 43rd in the world, not first. Interesting. To achieve the equivalent Grenada’s one-medal-in-100k people, the US would have had to come away with 324 medals. Not even close.
What big-power, big population, big investment country would openly admit that the top ten Olympic countries are all quite small in population? It says something extra about the dedication of their athletes, I think. Additional praise to them for their grit and excellence.
Below is my full spreadsheet. I think the top countries on this list deserve national praise, if any is to be doled out.