2012 Olympics: Is Total Medal Count More Important Than Winning Gold? Yes and No

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2012 Olympics: Is Total Medal Count More Important Than Winning Gold? Yes and No
Adam Pretty/Getty Images

As the London Olympics entered competition on August 2, the United States trailed the Republic of China in total medals by just one, 30-29. Perhaps more importantly, China has won 17 gold medals in the first five days of competition, while the United States has won, ahem, just 12.

During a radio interview this week, I was asked which medal race is more important for the United States to win—the most gold medals or the most overall medals.

At the time, I answered that winning the most golds would be the more important feat. Our country's sporting culture is built on winning championships; second place is the first loser, after all.

In the Olympics, however, second place gets an awesome silver medal, while third place gets a less-but-still awesome bronze medal. Standing on a podium and having someone put a medal around your neck, no matter what the scientific compound, cannot make anyone a loser. 

Or can it? For some athletes in the Olympics, the expectation of winning gold supersedes the pride and excitement of winning a silver medal. Someone tell the U.S. men's basketball team that the silver medal is just fine and see how long you (or they) can hold a straight face.

Someone tell Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte when they get on the blocks for the 200-meter individual medley final on Thursday that gold and silver are both great. Don't think for one second those two don't want to beat the other more than anything—or anyone—in the world. 

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When Phelps got beat at the wall by South African Chad le Clos in the 200-meter butterfly, it was perhaps the most devastating silver medal ever awarded at the Olympics.

The Russian gymnasts were blubbering in tears after falling twice during the floor exercise for the women's team competition. If viewers weren't following the scoreboard, some may have thought the miscues pulled Russia out of medal contention altogether. The Russians won the silver.

Still, as disappointing as silver may be for some, it surely is better than bronze.

In the men's gymnastics all-around final, American Danell Leyva was in 19th place after a disastrous pommel horse routine. He fought his way back with amazing performances in the other exercises to find himself in second place with one competitor to go in the entire competition. Germany's Marcel Nguyen nailed his final exercise to leap over Leyva into second place for the silver medal, relegating the American to the bronze position.

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Of course, when given time to digest the situation, Leyva had to be excited about winning a bronze medal, especially given how far back his early mistake had put him. To go from 19th to third is nothing short of amazing, but because of the timing of their rotations, Leyva could sense the silver in his grasp, making his bronze medal feel like something he had to settle for instead of something to celebrate. 

Did any of that answer my question: Is it better to win the most medals or to win the most golds?

Surely the correct answer is "both," but if the goal is to pick an either/or, I may change my position to thinking the most medals trumps the most gold.

Of course, it's easy for an American to say that after the Beijing Olympics. In 2008, the United States won the medal race, with 110 total medals to China's 100. The host nation did pull in 51 gold medals to USA's 36, severely skewing the question of which country had a better medal run based upon your take on this debate. 

Adam Pretty/Getty Images

In 2012, without the luxury of China competing at home, the Americans should beat China in both medal tally and gold medals. The second half of the Olympics has often been the time when America grabs medals in a host of different events, being favorites in several team competitions—men's and women's basketball, women's soccer, volleyball and even water polo to name a few—and expecting a huge medal haul in this year's track and field competition. 

That said, outside of the pool, the United States is having a bit of a poor medal tally at the Olympics so far. Of the 12 gold medals heading into competition on August 2, eight have come from the swimming events. In total, 18 of the 29 medals for the USA have come from the pool—21 of the 29 if the diving events are included. 

China, on the other hand, has a diverse medal count. The Chinese have won four golds in diving, swimming and weightlifting so far in London, while earning two gold medals in shooting and one in fencing, men's gymnastics and table tennis as well. 

There are some critics who balk at the medal count debate, citing the sheer number of competitors from bigger countries like China and the United States. The country of Cypress has just 13 members in its Olympic party. They probably aren't going to compete in any medal tallies.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Still, if the Olympics are about exuding international dominance through athletic competition—which, let's face it, they are—winning the most events and winning the most medals in those events are the two ways to determine the most dominant nation.

Which means, in a way, the answer really is both. While every athlete to step on a podium during the Summer Games surely would prefers gold, winning any Olympic medal for one's country has to be a dream come true, no matter what the color.

It's the schlubs who finish fourth everyone should be mad at.

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