So a think tank, whose work I follow, has an interesting post on their blog about medals counts at this year's Beijing games. It's a recurring theme. Every two years, folks from the left side of the political spectrum trot out the whole "medals per million" argument. I used to fall for it, but I don't any more. It's not that I'm any smarter now — or that my progressive political credentials are any less valid. It's two things, really: I'm tired of my political kin apologizing for the things America does well. We have plenty to apologize for anyway, no need to add legitimate strengths to the pile; also, the metric they're using is horribly flawed.
As I noted in my comment on their post:
While I wholeheartedly agree that raw medals count is a fairly useless metric — and one we choose because it suits our own aspirations and strengths — I'd have to submit that medals per capita is equally (though differently) useless.
In order for a small country to compete on the raw medals count, it would have to win everything it entered and it would have to field just as many athletes as larger nations. Which is unlikely. For a large country to compete on the per-capita scale, the Olympic games themselves would have to be vastly larger in order for countries to field a number of athletes commensurate to their size. In other words, for the US to best the Bahamas on a per capita basis (6.67/MM) they would have to enter and medal in 2,001 events… China would have to enter and medal in 10,005 events.
Neither is achievable.
A more reasonable measurement of success would be significantly more difficult, as it would likely pit nations of similar populations or GDPs against each other in a ranking that would also measure some other factors such as number of athletes fielded and the like.
In the end, I think the best thing to do is to enjoy the Olympics in the spirit they're intended. Rooting for the glory of the sport first… our homeland or other demographic second (if at all). And letting all rivalries be friendly ones.
Of course, I used the term "demographic" purposefully. I not only came to the games as a red blooded American — but as a Mormon and a gay man, as well. So I rooted for Phelps and the BYU, er… American Volleyball team… and for Matthew Mitcham.
What? You don't Mitcham? Well, aside from being a gold medalist on the 10 meter platform — and an Australian — Matthew is, arguably, one of the only openly gay men to ever medal.
Here's a montage of his 10 meter dives:
and another of his post-gold TV interview — the young man to his left is his partner of two years, Lachlan Fletcher: