Quality vs. quantity in medals race

Day 5 of the Games in Beijing and no prizes for guessing which American swimmer is making headlines.

Of course, Michael Phelps isn’t the only American scooping up medals. In fact, a quick look at NBC’s Olympics website tells me that the US is leading the table with 28 medals, as of mid-afternoon here.

Wait a minute, though. I thought China was ahead in the medals, pulling hometown advantage and pleasing the crowds of flag-waving patriots packed into the venues.

Did I miss something?

A quick look at the official Beijing Olympics website reassures me that China definitely is No. 1, thanks to the 17 gold medals that its athletes have earned so far. The US, with its 10 golds – half of them awarded to Phelps – is No. 2.

So we have two different ways of counting the medals tally: one by the overall number of medals, the other by the number of golds.

As far as the International Olympics Committee is concerned, it’s the latter method that matters. Nations that win the most gold medals get the top ranking, with any ties decided by counting the number of silvers, or if there’s another tie, bronzes.

By this count, which seems to be the international standard judging by visits to British, Canadian, and Japanese newspaper websites, host nation China leads the table.

But not in the US media. USA Today, CNN, Sports Illustrated and ESPN all stick to the formula that if it’s a medal, it’s a score. More scores mean more points. And so on.

Might this be American exceptionalism writ large? Or a reflection of a nation in denial as China guns for the Olympian crown that the USA has worn since 1996?

It certainly isn’t a scoring system that’s likely to get much traction in China, where the all-out drive for gold medals – silvers don’t count, sorry – is palpable this year.

A popular saying, usually attributed to a ranking member of the government’s sports body, posits that a gold medal is worth a thousand silvers.

Italians might want to quibble over the US ranking system. Going by the absolute medals count – as favored by NBC – Australia and Russia take 4th and 5th place respectively, behind the US, China, and South Korea. Italy is 6th with 10 medals.

Flip over to the official Beijing site, though, and Italy has snuck into 4th place, having tied Australia with four golds and pulled ahead with four silvers to two for Australia. La dolce vita, indeed.

I would be fascinated if anyone can explain why US media organizations have devised a different way of tallying national Olympics success from everybody else.

It might lead to no end of bafflement at the end of the games if the US and China both claim victory in the medals table. That’s a head-to-head worth watching out for.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.