The Folly of the Olympic Medal Count: Athletes, Audiences Deserve Better

Jeremy GoldsonCorrespondent IAugust 3, 2008

It’s time to get rid of the “Olympic Medal Count.”  I am referring to the running tables that compare each country’s “haul” during an Olympic Games.  There was a time when this statistical comparison was an important part of our national self-esteem, was a propaganda weapon, and was even part of our international policy. 

During the Cold War, especially, when there was genuine concern in the United States about which type of society would survive, each Olympic Games was a safe way of comparing freedom with totalitarianism.  It was much better than nuclear warfare, and was, therefore, a decent indicator of superior national prowess.

When the U.S. Hockey team defeated the Soviets in Lake Placid in 1980, their victory seemed like a victory against all totalitarian communisms.  And there was no notable mention that the victory would register in the medal count. 

Today, in a “flattened,” post-Cold War world, the medal count is overkill.  It diminishes each remarkable achievement of winning an Olympic medal, and it smacks of gloating.  It is perfectly obvious which countries will win the most medals—the ones that spend the most money and commit the most resources to athletics. 

There are other issues with the Olympic medal count.  For one thing, it presumes that each country’s athletes are all “in it together,” and that the swimmers, basketball players, and equestrian riders are all part of a team that is competing on the same playing field with the others.  The only truths in this are the uniforms that they wear and the flag under which they march into the stadium. 

No other athletes competing make the sort of money that the NBA players do.  While Jason Kidd can relax with his $16 million salary, other U.S. Olympians supplement their training with jobs at Home Depot. 

Yes, Michael Phelps will earn over $1 million in endorsements this year, but the same cannot be said for most of his swimming competitors.  While Denver resident Carmelo Anthony struggles with the burdens of freedom and a titillating nightlife, Dremiel Byers, his Olympic “teammate” sixty miles to the south, in Colorado Springs, will be competing for a Greco-Roman wrestling medal while serving as a member of the military. The playing field is not level.     

In addition, medal counting nationalizes and makes over-competitive the optimistic and peaceful idea of different countries coming together for two weeks of athletic events.  There is certainly competition, but it is based on the principle that bringing these countries together for sport for two weeks, hoping to minimize political and military conflicts, will make the world a better place. 

The fact that the United States, Burundi, the Cayman Islands, and Papua New Guinea are all competing together under the same torch is simple and wonderful enough.  We will be watching and reading about the victories themselves—drawing to obvious attention the fact that some countries are larger, wealthier, and better at sports than others is excessive.

Speaking of money, the urge to win medals is having negative effects on national economies around the world.  Hua Ming, for the Epoch Times, writes that China, while “around 100th in the world for GDP per person [believes it] can win over the U.S.—ranking in the top 10 countries for GDP—to become the top sports nation in gold metal totals.

Especially for a country that still has more than 200 million living below the poverty line; some believe China’s anticipated high medal ranking represents a poor allocation of resources.”  China has spent nearly $730 million per year since 2004 to try to win the most medals in Beijing. 

Among the other major “contenders” for high medal totals, Australia’s 2007 national sports budget was over $300 million (U.S.).  UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown has repeatedly had to answer criticism, sometimes with national speeches, about the United Kingdom’s plan to spend nearly $600 million dollars to spur improved performance at the 2012 London Games. 

The USOC’s operating budget has hovered between $100-$180 million dollars per year this decade, pretty impressive considering that it is a non-profit organization not funded by the federal government.  Of course, it is almost impossible to calculate an American “national sports budget.” Our financial system doesn’t work that way and capitalism doesn’t play out in this country in a way to encourage vast national subsidies.

As an important furthermore, let us all remember that the Olympics strive for an ideal of athletic purity is greatly bolstered by the massive television coverage.  There is an immense amount of money spent on broadcasting rights, money that goes directly to the IOC—traditionally one of the most corrupt and wealthy organizations in the world. 

NBC will pay $894 million to televise the Olympics this summer—and they expect to make a profit.  That sort of money goes a long way to overrunning athletic “purity.”

This “medal count” is unequally spread throughout the sports, as well, making the statistical measure insufficient.  One hundred and nineteen (119 out of 956 total) medals are given in the sports of swimming, rowing, sailing, canoe/kayak, and track and field.  These are sports that Americans are, traditionally, good at. 

The Chinese are so determined to “catch” the United States that they created a program called Project 119 in 2001 to boost their medals in those sports.  China is, perhaps, more wrapped up in this silliness than any other country.  Of course, the Chinese may have more to gain in world standing and national self-esteem than any other country. 

Whatever happened to the strong tradition of rooting for the underdog in this country? From last year’s New York Giants to the ’88 Dodgers to the 1980 Hockey team?  That trend does not extend to the Olympics right now. 

Yes, there are those occasional prime time looks at athletes from underprivileged countries that are meant to stir the heart (see the Eel, Eric, 2000 Summer Olympics) but also to subconsciously remind Americans of their overall preeminence. 

With that being said, we don’t root for athletes from other countries against our own juggernaut.  We have come to expect American athletes to break world records and win medals.

Besides, all of the medal winning is a poor substitute for making an effective, meaningful impact on an international level.  Nothing Phelps accomplishes is going to help this country win back international esteem and goodwill.  Or help with the genocide in Darfur, the starvation in Bangladesh, or the political crisis in Zimbabwe. 

Here’s the crux, I think: the individual achievements of the American swimmers, the U.S. Softball team, the gymnasts, the track team, and so many more are truly remarkable and commendable—as athletic achievements.  But not as evidence of American superiority.  There are an almost infinite number of things that make this country great—starting with the Bill of Rights and Freedom of Expression, but we take our athletic dominance for granted. 

I will be parked in front of the television next weekend rooting with vigor as Phelps, Katie Hoff, and Natalie Coughlin take to that fantastic luminescent bubble in downtown Beijing. But not solely because they are Americans.  And not at all because it will prove that Americans are better than other nationalities. 

I will be rooting for the athlete, for the achievement. For the fact that Taylor Phinney can ride his bike over twenty miles per hour. For the fact that Jeremy Wariner runs the 400 meters in under 45 seconds (I could do it in, two-and-a-half minutes), and for Jenn Stuczynski to literally fly in the pole vault.  I’ll be keeping my patriotism in perspective.  Saving it for a truly transcendent moment.  Like peace.