In war, there are definite winners and losers. Sports, on the other hand, inspire arguments. Let's talk about the 2012 London Olympics, and figure out who won... and inspire an argument at the same time!
So, how about it: did the United States really win the 2012 Olympics?
National Pride, Politics, and the 2012 Olympics
Winning medals is a point of national pride stretching back almost to the beginning of the modern Olympic games. For political, moral, and plain old bragging reasons.
Witness the United States' history: cheated out of a gold medal in basketball in 1972, members of that team who are still alive refuse to accept the silver. On the positive side, Jesse Owens, a black American track superstar, embarrassed Nazi Germany by winning 4 gold medals on their turf in 1936.
And that's just two stories from the US.
The games have inspired everything from betting scandals to movies about Jamaican bobsledders. Like an internationally recognized Superbowl – or even a World Cup that Americans watch – the Olympics is a worldwide event that matters.
How much does the Olympics matter?
This much: medal count is a political tool used by socialist, communist, social democratic, fascist, and democratic countries alike.
Witness three socialist and communist countries in the past/present - the U.S.S.R., China, and the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). Each of them won medals to 'prove' the inherent superiority of their political systems.
2 of the three were also the creators of some of the most advanced doping regimens of all time.
(Sure - I'm not so naive to think that doping isn't an issue today. However, I'll reserve judgement up until someone gets caught.)
All that said, measuring a company's success by their medal count or the number of gold medals is a bit of a stretch. Why should Kuwait, a small country of 3.5 million people, be measured against the United States or China? Los Angeles alone, without counting the surrounding valley and metro area, has 3.8 million people!
Scaling Medal Count for Fairness in the 2012 London Olympics
So the first of the scaled, 'fair' metrics is the number of medals per capita.
If the US gets 100 medals and Kuwait gets 1, that should be about even. Still, you want to reward better medal counts: silver and gold should be valued above bronze in some manner.
Now, I say all this as a curious observer. I'm certainly no Olympic athlete; my best performance in the 100 meter was in the low 12s. (That time hasn't been competitive since 1896.)
Treating all medals the same may look good in a medal count table, but it's hard to argue that being the third best in the world at something equals being the best.
Still not convinced?
Consider that in many events, the number of entrants are capped.
How is it fair to measure total medal count in gymnastics, where the individual events are limited to two people per country? Look at America's Jordan Wieber - she was 4th ranked in the world on the all around in gymnastics, yet had to sit it out since her teammates were #1 and #2.
Sure, it's an unfair rule - but I understand that a final consisting of 2 or 3 countries would be boring. Also look at teammate McKayla Maroney whose silver medal scowl launched 1,000 meme images.
(I doubt she would be so disappointed in a gold!)
So, how about a 'gold medals per capita' measure? Better, certainly.
The obvious issues, other than discounting silvers and bronzes, is also in the selection process. A single gold doesn't prove dominance. Consider the number of swimming events versus the number of games requires to win a medal in a team event. And, let's say that theoretically, some team's backups could also win gold?
That's exactly the case in Women's Beach volleyball, ignoring the domination of that sport by the US. Additionally, this measure is biased towards small countries, which may have a single athlete win multiple gold medals.
Making Gold Medal Metrics Fair
Those aren't even the only ways to 'make the metrics fair'.
The Wall Street Journal even touched on a few more esoteric ones - medals per dollars of GDP, anyone? Even with an attempt to scale the statistics, you come to some interesting stats. For example, the top 10% of countries won 52.3% of the medals. (Redistribution, anyone?)
What to do, what to do!? Basically, I just showed you that there is no good argument to determine which country did the best at the Olympics.
Funny, huh? Let that be my argument to you then: there isn't a good way to scale medal count - let the arguments continue!
Who won the 2012 London Olympics? Is it as simple as gold medals or total medals? Great Britain vs. Russia... which one would you rather be, medal count wise? Should we adjust for latitude?