The Medal Count

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of Ordinary Times. Relapsed Lawyer, admitted to practice law (under his real name) in California and Oregon. On Twitter, to his frequent regret, at @burtlikko. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.

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111 Responses

  1. Dman says:

    The issue is coming up with the ‘weight’ each medal should be worth. Why 5/3/1? Why not 3/2/1, 10/5/1, etc?

    By assigning an arbitrary weight, you make this ranking as subjective as the female ice skating scores and look how well that turned out yesterday. I think there are just two ways to look at it.

    1) overall medal count
    2) total gold medal count (because, as mentioned, this is the only medal the athletes are shooting for)Report

    • Burt Likko in reply to Dman says:

      Overall medal count means a gold means the same thing as a bronze. This is obviously untrue.

      Gold medal only count means a silver medal is worthless. This is also obviously untrue.

      I’m not married to the 5/3/1 point distribution. But whatever distribution is made, is thereafter not subjective. You either get a medal, or you don’t. How you get the medal in the first place may incorporate some subjectivity, but the fact of the award is as objectively verifiable as the length of a ski jump or the time of a bobsled run.Report

      • It’s actually not clear to me that silver and bronze aren’t to an extent worthless. Or at least arbitrary. I mean, there are more precious(-ish) medals – it’s arbitrary that we stop at third place.

        I agree with you, @burt-likko: the athletes are trying to win. I see more tears over silver than shouts of joy over bronze in my limited canvassing of the event finals.

        Since the “Medal Count” is a thing, I pay attention and am glad when Team USA is on top of it, but, to be honest, I’d be fine if it was just a Gold Medal Count. That’s what I pay most attention to.

        OTOH, the whoe system was devised by a group committed to advancing the spirit of competition; I trust them to know what competitors tend to care about. And maybe that’s coming in first, second, or third – but not fourth. I’m happy to go along with that if that is how people feel. OTOOH, maybe people feel that way because those are the places for which they award medals.

        I dunno. But my intuition tells me, like yours does, that it’s winning they care about, so it’s the GMC that I take most note of.

        I can see the appeal of multiplying the golds by 3, silver 2, bronze 1,. But then to me that muddles the results so that you can’t really track what’s going on. Third place isn’t one-third as great as first place, or maybe it is, but it’s also it’s own kind of thing, I think.

        At this point, I’d say keep the medal count because medals are what the athletes understand themselves to be competing for. But put more emphasis on the gold medal count, because that really tells the story of what’s going on in terms of competition. Or, maybe, both numbers do in tandem.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Burt Likko says:

        It’s actually not clear to me that silver and bronze aren’t to an extent worthless.

        I know a bronze medal winner. I don’t think she thinks it’s worthless.

        At any rate, she’s held onto it for the last 42 years.Report

      • I understand that. But if there had been copper medals for fourth place for a century as well, their holders would prize them as well. But you’re right, that was hyperbole.Report

    • Michelle in reply to Dman says:

      “you make this ranking as subjective as the female ice skating scores and look how well that turned out yesterday”

      I guess I’m not the only person who thought the wrong skater won.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Michelle says:

        You thought the Korean should have won, or the Italian? I thought the Russian girl was absolutely amazing, myself, and did about as well on the artistic stuff. The smart TV people said her potential point total on technical was higher than any other competitor, so even if she didn’t score as high on artistic she had a cushion if she hit all her jumps. Which she pretty much did.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Michelle says:

        My favorite was the Italian. I thought both her skates were absolutely phenomenal.Report

      • Kim in reply to Michelle says:

        Yeah, the sciency person in me said: da Russ tried for a harder program — it was a gamble and it paid off. Da Korean tried an easier program — and muffed easier things (spins, apparently).

        I don’t always like technical wins — there’s certainly at least a place in sports for comportment and artistry… (Though I seem to like it better in dressage, where it is more about good training…)Report

      • Glyph in reply to Michelle says:

        I thought both her skates were absolutely phenomenal.

        Huh. I thought you generally favored the left.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Michelle says:

        I don’t always like technical wins

        No, me either. Wasn’t there a male skater not too long ago who was the only guy who could do a quad, and loaded up his program with four or five of em? If he hit them, he couldn’t be beat. And as I recall, he did. But his artistic was horrible. Stiff and stilted by comparison to the other guys.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Michelle says:

        Huh. I thought you generally favored the left.

        There’s something I need to tell you Glyph. She was left handed. Err, well, footed anyway. So all’s good.Report

      • Kim in reply to Michelle says:

        in terms of technical merits,
        I remember Surya Bonaly, doing a backflip and landing on one foot.
        It’s so hard that they won’t let folks do it in competition.Report

      • Michelle in reply to Michelle says:

        All three were good, but I favored the Korean.Report

      • KatherineMW in reply to Michelle says:

        Carolina Kostner of Italy was my favourite by far, especially her short program. Just gorgeous.Report

    • James K in reply to Dman says:


      A weighting of 1/0/0 or 1/1/1 is fundamentally just as arbitrary as 5/3/1 or any of the other schemas you dismissed.Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to James K says:

        If you take winning versus not-winning (coming in first versus coming in in any other position) as a not-entirely-arbitrary distinction in itself, which I think most athletes do, then 1/0/0 would be less arbitrary than any of the others.

        Obviously, there’s certainly an argument that that is an arbitrary distinction, but then suddenly we face the question of why any of them are doing any of this in the first place. You have to seize on certain assumptions that arbitrary but that reflect shared valuings for any of this to make any sense at all.

        The argument that 1/0/0(/0/0/0…) is less arbitrary than 3/2/1(/0/0/0/0…) rests on the assumption that the distinction between fist place and second place is less arbitrary than between third and fourth. And, outside of the fact that a tradition of awarding medals for the top three places has evolved, I think that that assumption probably reflects the way athletes in fact feel about competition.Report

      • Kim in reply to James K says:

        so in sports where they award down to the eighth place, people think that those are what count?Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Dman says:

      you make this ranking as subjective as the female ice skating scores

      Are men’s scores less subjective?

      I truly don’t understand why people watch events without objective scoring. I see the outrage over the figure skating and all I can think is, “What do you expect? Subjective scoring is a petri dish for corruption.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to James Hanley says:


        But almost all sports have some subjective element. Foul calls? Penalties? In bounds/out of bounds?Report

      • Mo in reply to James Hanley says:

        @kazzy I hate that comparison because there’s a huge qualitative and quantitative difference in the subjectivity and the impact of that subjectivity. Are there a lot of close charge/block calls in the NBA? Most certainly. But there’s a huge gap in that and getting extra points for how pretty your shot was. I would have the same complaint if the was Olympic dunk contest.Report

      • KatherineMW in reply to James Hanley says:

        I truly don’t understand why people watch events without objective scoring.

        Because they’re approximately 200% cooler-looking than watching people cross-country ski. Did you see the slopestyle this olympics?Report

      • Kazzy in reply to James Hanley says:


        While I enjoy watching some of the subjectively-scored sports, I always end up flustered trying to figure out what actually merits a high score. I’ll see someone do something that looks really difficult and hard… only to learn it is really rather pedestrian and deserving of a middling score. Then I’ll see someone do something that looks really easy… only to learn it is actually really difficult and deserving of a high score. That doesn’t happen with objectively-scored sports. Either the ball goes into the hoop or it doesn’t. Either this guy crosses the line first or that guy does. I feel like you need to be an “insider” to really understand and properly process the subjective sports.Report

      • KatherineMW in reply to James Hanley says:

        I think that’s partly because they’re sports we haven’t actually done, so we’re not good at identifying what’s difficult. My brother snowboards and he thought the slopestyle judging was very good.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to James Hanley says:

        Which is more impressive, the guy who runs across half the outfield and makes a diving catch, or the guy who had the hitter played right, got the right jump off the bat, loped over to the right spot, and waited for the fall to come down?
        Likewise, the most impressive thing about Bonds at his peak wasn’t that he hit monster home runs, it was that he’d refuse to offer at so many pitches that weren’t quite right before he hit one out. Someone else might hit 73 home runs someday, but no one is ever going to reach 232 walks.

        In both cases, you need to understand the game to know what’s impressive and what’s not. And many people don’t, viz. all the people who write about sports for a living and think Jeter is a great shortstop.Report

  2. Maribou says:

    Google’s medal count (last time I checked) was just straight up ordering by golds, and then bolding of the country with the most medals overall. That makes intuitive sense to me, but maybe just cause that’s what I was raised with?Report

    • Dman in reply to Maribou says:

      I have seen the medal count given both ways. I am not sure which is better, but it is nice to see bothReport

    • Michael Drew in reply to Maribou says:

      Given that we make such a big deal about giving out the medals, I think it would sort of reflect the spirit of the Olympics better to order it by most medals and bold the one with the most golds. But in terms of *my* valuing, and I think, in their heart of hearts, that of the competitors, yeah, I think that reflects what’s happening in the Games most accurately.

      In a sense, the medal count, as well as I suppose the silver and bronze medals themselves, are as much an elaborate mechanism for softening the reality of you-either-win-or-you-don’t as anything else. It makes the whole thing a lot more appealing for an audience, and does recognize excellent performance short of outright victory. I think news orgs should report the gold medal count more prominently, but I think it’s also good that they convey the Olympics’ own sense of harmonious competition by acknowledging all the medal winners.Report

  3. Tod Kelly says:

    I like Burt’s method better, though to be honest I might prefer that we just count the gold medals, and acknowledge silver and bronzes separately.

    And while I tend to think it’s not worth it for the Winter Olympics — which I think of as more of a series of games than sports* — for the Summer Olympics I think different sports should be weighted differently. Like, if your country had a guy who just ran faster than any human being has ever run before in the history of the planet, it seems like that gold medal should count more than if your country sent the person whose rhythmic gymnastic routine the judges really, really liked.

    * Don’t get me started, curling enthusiasts.Report

    • Dman in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      I always thought there should be greater weight to the medals where there is more to do than just one of two runs. Take hockey, they play a bunch of games, just to get one set of medals. That seems to have more weight to the medal than the down hill skier that went down the hill a couple of times or sliding across ice nicely (can you guess my bias?)Report

      • Kim in reply to Dman says:

        you do trials to even get in the skiing events, don’t you?

        I agree, they don’t count nearly as much as the tourney style events…Report

      • KatherineMW in reply to Dman says:

        We could do the medal count based on the total number of physical medals which each country receives (meaning a victory in hockey, football, baseball, etc. is worth 20+ medals).Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      Fighting words, Tod. You try walking down a sheet of ice bent over at the waste, one hand down at floor level, scrubbing as hard as you can. Or try throwing the stone with just the right amount of force or spin. If curling’s not a sport, neither is archery or the biathlon.Report

      • Tod Kelly in reply to James Hanley says:

        “If curling’s not a sport, neither is archery or the biathlon.”

        Yes!!! Or NASCAR.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to James Hanley says:

        That’s a good point Tod: why isn’t closed wheel racing in the Olympics? It should be. It’s more of a sport than runing around spinning stringy things in curly swirls. Or trampoline.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to James Hanley says:

        Or chess. You try remembering how knights moves!Report

      • Glyph in reply to James Hanley says:

        You try remembering how knights moves!

        Like mysteries without any clues.Report

      • Mike Dwyer in reply to James Hanley says:

        Curling IS a sport but I am not willing to call these people athletes. I mean, hunting is a sport and shooting well, especially wing-shooting, requires years of practice, but one look at my midsection will tell you I am no athlete.

        I don’t have a problem with curling being in the Olympics though. Competition is not just about athletics. It is about testing your skills against other people who are really good at also playing this physical game. Of course that opens it up to all sorts of other potential entries. Billiards comes to mind.

        One change I would make is to bring some summer sports over to the winter Olympics just to balance things out. Indoor volleyball would be a good choice there. That way there wouldn’t be so many sports (like wrestling) that could potentially be cut.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

        “Sports (plural noun): an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment.”Report

      • Shazbot9 in reply to James Hanley says:

        The great thing about curling is that it is often played while drunk. Even at very high levels curlers drink. I suspect they don’t drink at the Olympics, but they could I bet.

        Does that make it less of a sport? Meh.

        (I am from a curling family back in Canada.)Report

      • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:


        From what I’ve heard, top level curlers drink a lot less these days. Fitness turns out to be a competitive advantage.

        Your local club, hopefully they still pound them diwn.Report

      • Matty in reply to James Hanley says:

        One change I would make is to bring some summer sports over to the winter Olympics just to balance things out.

        I’m sure I saw a serious proposal by some sporting group to add cyclo-cross cycling to the winter Olympics on the grounds it is normally done over winter. Apparently they were turned down on the grounds that ‘winter’ sports must involve either snow or ice.Report

      • Shazbot3 in reply to James Hanley says:

        Hey James,

        Yeah, I asked an old curling friend and he agreed with you. The drinking at high levels doesn’t happen anymore like it used to.Report

      • Mo in reply to James Hanley says:

        @mike-dwyer I forgot who said it, but someone pointed out that basketball should be a winter sport. The bulk of basketball season is in the winter and always has been. Though that would break the theme of the winter Olympics, which is white people on white stuff (mostly joking on the first part).Report

      • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

        the theme of the winter Olympics, which is white people on white stuff

        You have to admit, cocaine is a great theme.Report

      • Mike Dwyer in reply to James Hanley says:


        For basketball to work you would have to get colleges and the NBA to agree to take a few weeks off or you would never get quality players to join the Olympic team. I don’t follow hockey. Are they playing right now? How do they handle the problem?Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to James Hanley says:

        Then they need to add more events:

        Sober Curling
        Buzzed Curling
        Falling-down Drunk Curling

        complete with blood-alcohol tests to ensure the contestants are in the right range. You could make a movie about the first Saudi team to compete internationally in the Falling-down Drunk category and call it “Iced Stumblings”.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to James Hanley says:

        Then they need to add more events:

        Or maybe just have a whole new Drunk Olympics for curling, billiards, darts, beer pong and related events, cup flipping, golf (of course), horseshoes, and events with snowmobiles, fourwheelers, chainsaws and other power tools including heavy equipment (the ice driving portion of the routines would be spectacular).

        You know, events everyone can relate too.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:


        The NHL takes a break. The NBA could do so just as well, if players and owners agreed. College basketball is irrelevant to the Olympics now, so the NCAA wouldn’t be affected.Report

      • zic in reply to James Hanley says:

        The NBA could do so just as well, if players and owners agreed.

        I don’t know if this is so; they have such a crowded schedule already, it might mean having to eliminate games from it or having to extend the season again.Report

      • How do they [the NHL] handle the problem?

        With an artificially compressed tournament structure, and the NHL players as only the icing on the cake. Only 12 teams play in the Olympic tournament. The top nine teams from the previous year’s world championship automatically qualify (played without most of the NHL players, since that championship overlaps with the Stanley Cup playoffs). The other three spots are filled based on multiple qualifying tournaments (also played without the NHL players). The NHL goes on a 17-18 day hiatus, the NHL players join their national teams at the last minute, then a quick three-game pool round for seedings (and to give the last-minute NHL additions a chance to actually practice with their teams) and a 3.5-round elimination bracket. The winning team will have played a maximum of seven games. Every team is guaranteed to play at least four games (important to fans who may have traveled a long way).

        No way is this going to work for basketball. FIBA holds the world championship in September for a reason — a large majority of the players on the top teams are pros in the NBA or other big-money leagues. If FIBA is going to make even a pretense of having the “best” basketball in the world, they have to schedule around those leagues.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

        Michael Caine/zic–I just meant in terms of scheduling games the NBA could do it just as well as the NHL, if the players and owners committed to it. Both leagues play 82 game seasons (last time I looked) that cover about the same amount of calendar time. Setting aside the advantages of having playoff games on certain days of the week for television purposes, it would be easier for the NBA to compress the playoffs because basketball’s somewhat less strenuous than hockey (which is not meant to minimize the strenuousness of basketball).Report

      • If curling’s not a sport, neither is archery or the biathlon.

        Ah, but archery and biathlon have the advantage of being stylized versions of activities where the original idea was to kill things (and in particular, kill people). The Olympics, both ancient and modern, have always had a fondness for stylized versions of military activities.

        Fencing has been in every modern Olympics, but epee was not included in the 1896 games because it wasn’t stylized enough — in some backwoods parts of Europe at that time, epee was still the training weapon for duelists who occasionally killed people. My epee coach (who is now about 70) studied under a college coach (who was about 70 at the time) who fought a first-blood duel somewhere in Italy in the 1920s as a result of spilling an old-aristocracy Italian Air Force officer’s drink. The duel, held on a tennis court, was reported in the local newspaper.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

        I’m sure some northern European primitives once threw rocks at each other across a frozen stream.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to James Hanley says:

        I heard a comedian talk about how the Winter Olympics should really be called the Ice and Snow Games. Gymnastics, basketball, and a host of other sports are indoor events and are more popular in the winter because outdoor options aren’t available.Report

      • @james-hanley
        My small point regarding basketball comes down to the tournament structure. FIBA structures its year around a world championship held in early September*. Moving that by one month into August every four years for the Olympics is one thing; moving it by six months into the middle of league play all over the world is quite another. The tournament structure would also have to change dramatically in Olympic years. Instead of practices, exhibitions, and qualifying for some of the teams being spread out over a couple of months when the pros are available, they’d have to adopt the hockey arrangement: reduced number of teams, very limited qualifying slots, drop the pros in at the last minute, substitute a few pool games for practice/exhibition. Basically, Olympic basketball would become a competition for the best pick-up national team in the world.

        * Granted, that may have been originally dictated by the NBA and NCAA schedules in the US, but it’s now a global thing.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:


        I’m not saying it would be easy to do, or that it wouldn’t require major scheduling/organizational changes. I’m saying that, assuming political will to make those changes were forthcoming, it could be done.

        Olympic hockey has become largely the best national pickup teams. Basketball could. I’m not saying should (I am 100% ambivalent). But I imagine if it ever happened, after the initial wailing and gnashing of teeth it would just become the new normal.Report

      • ScarletNumbers in reply to James Hanley says:


        Well it’s not really a joke but an observation.

        After all, according to the Olympic Charter, Chapter 1, Article 6, winter sports are “sports which are practised on snow or ice”.


        Basketball is not a winter sport per se. After all, the WNBA plays in the summer for the most part. The NBA only plays in the winter because arena owners needed to fill up dates between hockey games.Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to James Hanley says:

        If there are going to be (only) two team sports in the Olympics that are played at the professional level around the world, with the best player coming to the North American leagues where the money is best, etc., etc., it seems to me you might as well have one in the Winter games and one in the Summer games. Otherwise one of them would just have a completely crazy rigamarole dealing with two sets of high-profile professional athletes coming in, and the rest of the events would be even more overshadowed than they are. And the other Games would have to replace a major attraction or suffer the attendant drop-off in interest.

        If you were going to move either basketball to Winter or hockey to Summer, you might as well move hockey to Summer to avoid the league play conflict that’s been mentioned. But I don’t see any reason to move either.Report

  4. Daniel says:

    In a way, any medal count goes back to ranking by gold, then silver or bronze. Other than a handful of countries, the vast majority will end up with the same total number of medals, so they always end up ranking by gold.Report

  5. Tod Kelly says:

    Side note: Years ago, I remember This American Life talking about a study done on the effects medals had on individuals in later life. The study said that Gold medal winners did OK (no surprise there), and so did the bronze winners. The group that had difficulties with depression, bitterness, etc, were the silver medalists. Apparently it’s hard on the soul and psyche to come that close but just barely miss the gold.Report

  6. Stillwater says:

    Another way to evaluate medal counts is by using your 5, 3, 1 method (which I like) in relation to population. Norway’s kicking international buttocks.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Stillwater says:

      So are the Dutch, who’ve smashed the record for speed skating golds by a nation in a single Olympics. The record was previously held by East Germany, and you know how they managed it, which makes the achievement all that more impressive.Report

  7. KatherineMW says:

    Go Canada! Two days, two defeats of the Americans in hockey!

    And I’m of the opinion that we should do the medal count with 3 points for gold, 2 for silver, 1 for bronze.Report

  8. DRS says:

    *Cough* Actually, it’s Canada: 9-10-5. *Cough*Report

  9. Kolohe says:

    And a women sport’s medal should only be worth .77 of what a men’s medal is worth.
    *runs away*Report

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  11. Mike Schilling says:

    Or we could appreciate the point of the Olympics, which is to promote international amity through individual competition, and not count medals by country. (You know that California kicked butt in baseball last year, right? 418 wins!)Report

  12. notme says:

    Sorry it is a load of rot. Can the medals and flags. Give only the winner a laurel wreath.Report

    • Matty in reply to notme says:

      Incidentally I believe the idea that competitors at the ancient Olympics got nothing but a laurel wreath and went out alone for the glory of it is largely false. The priests of Olympia may not have awarded anything else but the athletes were seen as representing city states who paid them enough to train full time and bonuses for winning so it wasn’t that far from the modern situation.Report

  13. Kazzy says:

    I actually saw an article discuss this. And it pointed out that most outlets seem to use whatever system paints their home country in the best light. Is American lagging in overall medals but gold-heavy? A weighed system will do. Few golds but lots of bronzes and silvers? Total medals it is!

    What is too often ignored is team events. Whoever wins the hockey gold will have needed to win multiple games through the combined efforts of more than a dozen athletes. Yet that will count as one medal. Meanwhile — in the summer games — Michael Phelps can win multiple medals, sometimes for doing the same ´exact thing but at a different distance. I don’t mean to make that sound easy but seeing Phelps win 7 or 8 medals at one game while the entirety of the men’s basketball team earns a total of 1 gold medal doesn’t seem to accurately reflect what actually occurred.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Kazzy says:

      Michael Phelps can win multiple medals, sometimes for doing the same ´exact thing but at a different distance.

      I agree completely with the point of your post, but I’d like to point out that different distances aren’t in fact the same exact thing. Is the hundred yard dash the exact same thing as the 5,000 because in both you’re running?

      My daughter’s a swimmer, and she likes the 100 freestyle and the 500 freestyle, but hates the 200 free with a passion. Deadsolid refuses to swim it. Too long for her to go all out as she can in the 100, too short to focus on just a steady pace. It affects your stroke rate and your breathing in a way that makes it very very different. In a sprint your stroke rate is much faster and there’s more of a “lunging” motion in it, and you take fewer breaths per lap; in a distance your stroke rate is much more controlled and you’ll take more breaths per lap. Completely different rhythms.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to James Hanley says:

        Ya know… as I wrote that, I thought, “If I’m wrong, @james-hanley is going to stick it to me!” I should have known better than to talk out of my ass about swimming with the proud papa of a talented swimmer in our midst. 🙂

        When I ran indoor, the dimensions of some of the tracks led to odd distances. I could run a crappy 400 and a decent 800. But a 600? No one knew how to run a 600. It was too long to sprint but the 800 pace left too much in the tank. Most everyone ended up throwing up afterward.

        I recognize that there isn’t a 1-to-1 correlation between swimming a 100 Free, 500 Free, and 5000 Free. But the r-value is still highly positive. That is more what I was trying to get at. To me, one gold in the decathlon is more impressive than two golds in the 100 Free and 500 Free. Of course, both are far more impressive than anything I’ve accomplished.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

        To me, one gold in the decathlon is more impressive than two golds in the 100 Free and 500 Free.

        I can’t argue that. I think the decathlon is by far the single most impressive competition.

        Which reminds me of a story. When I wast Oregon, they had the NCAA track and field championships there, which was cool because I was poor, entry was cheap, and I lived two blocks from the field. One of Oregon’s guys was the favorite to win the decathlon, and when they came to the final event, the 1500 meter, he had such a large lead he could have run far below his best time and still won the national championship. Then his legs cramped up before the race started. We watched that poor guy literally hobble around the track, barely able to stand up. He came in dead last for the race, and finished, iirc, 3rd in the decathlon. A heartbreaking moment in sports.

        At Oregon I also worked with a guy who ran in the Olympics. His strong distance was 5k, but at the Olympic trials he bungled that, but somehow did a personal best in the 10k and made the team in that. Unfortunately 10k wasn’t his strong point, and he finished last, or maybe just real close to it, at the Olympics.

        Sports kinda suck, don’t they?Report

      • ScarletNumbers in reply to James Hanley says:


        When I ran indoor…

        Did you ever run at the Rothman Center?Report

      • Kazzy in reply to James Hanley says:


        I did. Most — if not all — our meets were there or at the Harlem Armory. FDU had a shorter track and was host of the dreaded 600.Report

    • Mo in reply to Kazzy says:

      @kazzy My beef with swimming is less about the number of distances, but the different strokes. It’s not like there’s a separate track event for the 100 meter skip, the 100 meter speed walk and the 100 meter running backwards. It should be point A to point B the fastest, however you want to do it with varying distances of A and B.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Mo says:

        Good point, @mo . Though a 100M skip would be fun.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Mo says:


        But in track you have regular running and you have hurdles. You have two distance jumps; the long jump and the triple jump. You have two height jumps; the high jump and the pole vault. You have three different things to throw; hammer, discus, javelin.

        The different strokes are simply different disciplines in the same way those are.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Mo says:

        We could also look at skiing. I mean they’ve got the slalom, the giant slalom, and the super giant slalom, plus the downhill.

        Ski jumping has a normal hill and a large hill.

        I just don’t see how you can single out swimming without condemning a lot of other sports, too.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Mo says:


        I would probably similarly criticize many of the examples you offered. I used swimming in my initial example because, among these types of sports, it is probably the one I watch most. I didn’t even know there were different slaloms or ski jump hills.

        In the grand scheme, I don’t really care all that much. It’s not even entirely clear to me that we should view the Olympics as a country-based event. Yes, athletes represent a given country. But you also have people from the same country in direct competition with one another in many events and the different sports rarely have anything to do with each other (e.g., I don’t think USA Basketball has anything to do with USA Track & Field). I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t really care how many medals America wins or Russia wins or Sweden wins. I’m more interested in the individual/team accomplishments.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Mo says:


        Your Olympics would be boring. What would it have 3 events? I’m not sure you could even get a decathlon under your rules. 😉Report

      • Michael Cain in reply to Mo says:

        Since I’m the resident fencer… three weapons — epee, foil, sabre — all with the basic idea of touch the other person without getting touched. But the rules and resulting techniques are different enough that no one at elite international levels qualifies on more than one weapon. If you don’t specialize, you simply aren’t good enough.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Mo says:

        We should just have one giant boxing match every four years, done Royal Rumble style. You think you’re the best athlete in the world? Take it to the ring.Report

      • KatherineMW in reply to Mo says:

        There is a speed-walking event.

        It is ridiculous.

        I agree about the different swimming strokes. The hurdles and multiple types of alpine skiing have some rationale: at least the courses are different. The different alpine skiing disciplines are about the differing weights placed on speed vs. accuracy of movement. But swimming? You’re in the same lane of the pool every time, and there’s four different strokes. Pick whichever one is fastest, and make that the race – there’s no merit in being able to swim slower using a different stroke. It’s less like the hurdles than like a hundred-meter-dash where you have to hop on one foot. Or, since there’s four types, like three other hundred-metre-dashes: one where you hop on your left foot, one where you hop on your right, and one where you have to hop with both feet together.

        Could do the same with the fighting events, too, since they’re already divided by weight class – just stick boxing, judo, taekwando, etc. all together and call it Olympic mixed martial arts. Okay, I’m partly joking on this one.

        (My other chance to the summer Olympics would be to get rid of the indoor cycling events. You want to race a bike, do it someplace that’s accessible to more than 0.00001% of the world, i.e.: a road, not a velodrome. Ride a real bike, not something that doesn’t function properly anywhere that isn’t a velodrome. It would also significantly decrease summer Olympic costs, because whereas an athletics stadium or swimming pool might just be of use to the public, there’s not much you can do with a velodrome once the events are over: not enough people who want to use it.)Report

      • greginak in reply to Mo says:

        Track/indoor cycling is popular in some places other than the US. There aren’t many velodromes here, but some countries have many of them. Nothing about cycling is cheap, but that is the way it is.

        I’m with you on the multiple swimming events though. Who would use the breast stroke if it wasn’t for competitions? My uneducated guess would be that the only reason anybody even uses or teaches it is due to racing.Report

      • Mo in reply to Mo says:

        @greginak The advantage of the breast stroke is that your head is above water and it’s easy to see where you’re going, so it does have some practical advantages. The butterfly, OTOH, doesn’t have any practical use aside from competitions. It’s slower and less efficient than freestyle. You’ll see regular people doing a breast stroke, you’ll never see a regular person doing a butterfly.Report

      • ScarletNumbers in reply to Mo says:


        Who would use the breast stroke if it wasn’t for competitions?

        8th grade boys…Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Mo says:

        But swimming? You’re in the same lane of the pool every time, and there’s four different strokes. Pick whichever one is fastest, and make that the race – there’s no merit in being able to swim slower using a different stroke.

        No merit in mastering a particular terchnical skill?

        Well, nobody’s making you watch it, so please just allow we who grok it to continue having our fun.Report

      • KatherineMW in reply to Mo says:

        The swimming events always get priority in the summer olympics. Instead of watching white-water canoeing and kayaking, or fencing, or handball, or any number of other things, about half the coverage in the first half of the olympics will be showing people swim the same distance in four different ways.

        And I like watching the Olympics.

        So yes, someone is kind of making me watch it in preference to other things that might be interesting, And it artificially inflates the importance of swimming to the medal count. There’s anywhere from a couple to a dozen events for most sports. Swimming has thirty-four.Report

      • Kim in reply to Mo says:

        I want to vote that we kill the speedwalking and instead substitute a trailrunning event.
        Much more fun.Report

      • Glyph in reply to Mo says:

        Keep speed-walking, but add a requirement that all participants must clench a grape betwixt their buttocks.

        Anyone who drops theirs, must eat all other participants’ grapes at the end of the race.

        [Lance Armstrong attempts to mount athletic comeback; is disqualified in scandal involving illegal use of Krazy Glue]Report

  14. Mike Dwyer says:


    A lot of people are unaware that dueling (with pistols) was an early Olympic sport

    The official competition was shooting at plaster dummies but in 1908 there was an exhibition of person-to-person dueling with wax bullets. Unfortunately it never caught on.

    I would love to see team paintball end up in the Olympics someday.Report

    • KatherineMW in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

      I would love to see team paintball end up in the Olympics someday.

      I can’t decide if this is really silly or really awesome.

      But it’s certainly better than golf.Report

  15. ScarletNumbers says:

    As much as this pains me, I agree with Burt on this one.

    Tallying the results by total medals is silly.

    It is worth noting that in a high school dual track meet, scoring is done on a 5-3-1 basis.

    This makes sense, because a gold is worth more than a silver and bronze combined.Report

  16. Shazbot9 says:

    Is Thunderdome an event yet?

    I agree that there are too many medals for some sports to make medal counts at all interesting, even when weighted. Norway and the Dutch do well because of one or two events that they dominate that offers a lot of medals.

    The solution is not to eliminate events, but to stop caring about and hopefully no longer publishing medal counts on the first page.Report

    • Rod in reply to Shazbot9 says:

      You could make a lot of this into team competitions so instead of Michael Phelps bringing home nine medals you just have the USA team winning “Men’s Swimming”. And then maybe another medal for MVP.

      The problem with a lot of events is that there’s no particular natural set of distances and/or styles. You could start anywhere, say 10 m, and have another event at 20, 30, 40, 50, etc. up to as high as you like and give out hundreds of medals. The only limit would be sheer tedium.Report

  17. Kolohe says:

    Via Fark, here’s a table of medal count weighted by the total number of athletes that won a given medal. (‘medal standings per athletes’ is somewhat a misnomer, because the ‘athletes’ dimension is above the divisor not below it)Report