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Fun with Numbers, Olympic Edition

Sunday, August 12, 2012, 22:59 EDT Leave a comment Go to comments

2012 Olympic gold medalWho has spent the last two weeks following the Olympics? (The Den Mother raises her hand.) There were many opportunities for me to blog about the games, but life has gotten in the way. Now that the festivities have concluded, I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to look at London 2012 by the numbers.

What most people follow is the medal count, and it tells some interesting stories. Of the 200+ countries that sent athletes to London, 85 got medals, with the top five countries ended up with more than half of all medals awarded. The United States led all around, winning more total medals (104) and more of each color than any other country. Rounding out the top five countries were China (87 total), Russia (82), Great Britain (65), and Germany (44), with the host country eclipsing Russia in golds. Compare that to the other end of the spectrum, where 18 nations took but a single medal each.

As an American, I am understandably proud of the success of my countrymen and women. We’re a populous and prosperous nation, which goes a long way toward explaining why we’re the all-time leader in medals won in the modern Olympics. But I’m equally interested in the smaller countries that have notable Olympic success. And if you look at medals won compared to population, the United States didn’t even make the top half in London. Team USA brought home one medal for every 3,020,000 people in the country, but doing even better were Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Great Britain, most European nations, and several former Soviet republics. The runaway leader in medals per capita was the tiny Caribbean nation of Grenada, which won only one medal—a gold—but has a population of just 105,000. Compare that to the world’s most population nation, China, which came in 12th from the bottom, with one medal for every 15.5 million people.

The gold medal picture shapes up about the same, where the United States (one gold medal for every 6.8 million people) was 28th out of 54 nations that won at least one gold. At the top of the list after Grenada were the Bahamas (one gold per 353,658), Jamaica (1 per 675,457), New Zealand (1 per 886,898), and Hungary (1 per 1.25 million). Our North American neighbors didn’t do as well: Canada (a single gold for its population of almost 35 million) was 8th lowest and Mexico (one gold for the country of 16 million) brought up the rear.

But for all the emphasis some of us put on medal counts, it’s worth remembering that most of the countries that sent athletes to London won not a single medal of any color. In fact, the vast majority of competitors went in knowing they had not a snowball’s chance in hell of getting near the medal podium. Their successes were measured differently, perhaps by making it out of a qualifying round or achieving a personal best, but for most merely by participating. With the occasional exception (think Eddie the Eagle or the Jamaican bobsleigh team), we won’t hear about them, and they will go about the rest of their lives in obscurity. But they will come away from their Olympic experiences much happier than the soccer team that lost in the gold medal match or the world champion diver who “only” got silver, because they recognize what an honor it is to be able to say what the rest of us never will: that they are Olympians.

The Olympics are all about numbers. The number of participating countries. The number of events. The number of spectators. The number of volunteers. The number of points awarded by a judge. The number of centimeters or milliseconds by which a race was lost. The number of dollars or euros or pounds or pesos or yen spent by the host city. The number of corporate sponsors. The number of athletes suspended for doping. The number of scandals among IOC officials. Strip away those numbers and you’re left with the only number that makes the Olympics worth all the trouble: the people who get nothing but joy from competing or cheering or watching on TV, the ones for whom the ideals of Olympism really mean something.

Those numbers are immeasurable.

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