Saturday, September 13, 2008

All that glisters is not gold

There was an interesting article on the WSJ website last month about the history of Olympic medal tables. At present, it seems, there is - surprise, surprise! - a certain unreality, a certain hypocrisy in the IOC's position on them: officially they are discouraged, but in practice they are condoned, if not promoted.

It's odd that, after all this time, no standard method has been developed for assessing the collective value of medal wins in all three categories, gold, silver, and bronze. Most countries seem to have adopted the method (tacitly supported by the IOC, since organizing committees - not just Beijing's - always seem to use this on their 'official' medal tally rankings) of counting only the gold medals to determine the ranking, and referring to the number of silver (or bronze) medal wins only to break a tie on golds. Obviously, this procedure is unsatisfactory, since it fails to accord any credit to these other medal-winning performances. And it would seem unjust if a country which had amassed a significant number of silver and/or bronze medals were to be 'ranked' lower than one which had achieved but a single gold medal. This year, for example, Sweden - with a creditable haul of 4 silvers and 1 bronze - found itself ranked behind four countries which had managed only a single gold medal win. (Moreover, as the WSJ article points out, there is a danger that an only-gold-matters attitude may be damaging, unbalancing the allocation of funding: sports where your country has no strong gold medal contender may find themselves starved of cash, coaching, and training facilities. One wonders if this may be a problem in China, which won a disproportiately high number of gold medals this year. [Few countries won more golds than silvers. Of the ones that did, Jamaica - thanks to the Lightning Bolt - won twice as many golds as silvers, and Germany and Great Britain around 1.5 times as many. China won 2.5 times as many!! Something strange going on there.])

The Americans - alone in the world? - or at least their sports media, have adopted an alternate system whereby all medals are counted in the tally. According to the WSJ article, they have been doing this for years - it's not just a convenient innovation in 2008 to keep them at the top of the medal table above China (although, hey, anything that stops the Chinese getting too full of themselves about their medal performance in this Olympics is OK with me!). Obviously, this procedure is unsatisfactory, since a bronze or silver medal is plainly not quite such an important achievement as a gold.

What we need is some sort of points system for weighting the value of the three types of medal, enabling us to produce an objective valuation of overall medal performance.

We Brits tried it, way back in 1908 when London hosted the event for the first time: we accorded 5 points for a gold, 3 for a silver, and 1 for a bronze. I've heard numerous other systems advocated in bar conversations over the past month: 10, 7, and 4 seems to be one of the most popular point distribution suggestions. The problem with all of these, it seems to me, is the inequality in relative weighting between gold and silver, and silver and bronze - particularly with the 5-3-1 system: it seems unjust that a silver medal should be rated three times as valuable as a bronze, but a gold medal only just over 1.5 times as valuable as a silver. I tend to think that the proportion of weighting between the different levels should be constant: i.e. if a silver is worth 1.5 bronze medals, then a gold should be worth 1.5 silvers. However, this doesn't really work conveniently with any number ratio except 2:1. Is a gold medal really worth two silvers, and four bronzes? Actually, that sounds about right to me. In which case a 20-10-5 points system would be conveniently straightforward..... and reasonably fair...... and, we can but hope, satisfactory for all parties?

I think we should start lobbying for the introduction of this approach to medal-tallying for the next London Olympics. (However, I don't think that any such medal-weighting system would be likely to alter the 2008 final rankings, at least at the top - a relief, since I was acutely conscious of the danger of promoting Australia above Great Britain in this year's list!)

Ah, and wouldn't it be a nice elaboration if there was a graded weighting also for medals in different sports (rather as with university sporting colours; at Oxford and Cambridge, 'blues' are awarded at half, quarter, eighth, and even, I think, sixteenth levels for the more minor sports and games; only a handful of the biggest sports - like rugby and rowing - are accorded 'full blue' status)? The Chinese wouldn't be quite so dominant if only the athletics and the swimming carried full medal points, while the sillier games - like table tennis and badminton - received only one-quarter or one-eighth value.

(I don't say this just to be a China-basher [although, gosh, that is fun once in a while]. I happen to think that the essential ethos of the Olympics is about individual endeavour; and I would therefore remove all of the team sports and all of the adversarial, 1-on-1 sports. I'm really not too happy about anything that requires advanced technology - like shooting and archery - either, although I suppose the argument can be made that they are sports which are indeed a test of the individual, and that they are sports which are too small to survive without the boost of interest and cash support which the Olympics provides. The Olympics, I feel, are completely irrelevant to football, basketball, baseball, and tennis, since these are already well-established and extremely well-funded professional sports with mass participation and mass TV coverage. That's enough digression. Ed)

No comments: