A European view of the medal totals in Beijing


Totals at the end of day 15.  Numbers in brackets are medal totals normalized for population (China x 1, EU x 2, USA x 4).

Territory Population (~m) Gold Silver Bronze Total
China 1200 49 (49) 19 (19) 28 (28) 96 (96)
Europe 600 89 (178) 106 (212) 101 (202) 296 (592)
USA 300 34 (136) 37 (148) 36 (144) 107 (428)

Medal statistics taken from the official Olympics web site.

Been a good games for Europe – Great Britain in particular.  Fourthin the gold medal league at the end of day 15 (and ahead of Russia after day 14) is amazing.  The USA Track & Field team has not been up to its usual high standard though the US collegiate system has created many of the winners for other countries.

At an event like the Beijing Olymics the medal totals are presented summarized by “country”.  But the notion of a country is an accident of history and not necessarily a usful guide to perceived performance.  For example I live in a relatively small country with a population of ~60m (2 gold medals so far!).  The USA has a population of approximately 300m while China is approching 1.2Bn yet these are all examples of “countries” that are supposed to be competing on an equal footing.

Now to be fair, each country can only enter the same number of competitors in any one event so China cannot enter 20 times the number of swimmers into the 100m freestyle event than Great Britain.  However the pool from which they can choose competitors is 20x greater.  China and the USA are continent sized countries with weather suitable for all sports (who’s going to play beach volleyball on the stony beach of England’s south coast or the frozen beaches of Scotland?).  Moreover, a country China with over a billion people can cover all the sports comfortably.

I don’t mean to pick on China – its just such an extreme example.  Similar ratios apply to the USA though the absolute numbers are only a quarter the size.  Sometimes the competitors restrictions imposed by the Olympic qualifying rules do adversely affect a country.  For example, US competitors hold 8 of the fastest 10 times in the world this year in the mens 100 backstroke.  There’s every possibility that the USA could take all three medals in this event if anyone meeting the qualifying time was able to compete.  But many countries have one event like this at which they happen to excel.  Great Britain could probably put up several rowing crews capable of taking medals but only one crew per country is allowed.

However, I *do* come from a country with a smallish population.  So to even the score a little bit, I’m keeping a record of the medal tally across Europe.  This is about 600m people so somewhere between the USA and China and on a par with India.  Maybe I should keep a score for “far east” countries as well after all put South Korea with Japan and Vietnam and you’d have a pretty good team (11 gold medals so far) and population of ~260m.

There’s no pretence that having an EU total is any less arbitrary than the current grouping though if “country” is defined as “entity to which you contribute taxes” then Europe (or at least the EU) is a bonafide country.  The only reason the EU doesn’t compete as a block is that a succession of would-be leaders starting with the Romans, then Charlamagne through Napoleon and most recently Jacques Delors so never quite did what, say, Chairman Mao was able to do.  So maybe this is just my shot at revisionist history.

Anyway, despite the rejection of an EU “constitution” I think many Europeans would like to see how Europe stacks up against the rest of the world – so far, not bad!

A particular distortion introduced by adding together the European is that Team Europe gets to field more competitors per event.  You can see the effect of this in the medal totals where Team Europe has a pumped up proportion of Silver and Bronze medal.  However there can only be one winner – presumably the best athlete regardless of where they come from or how many compete so the gold medal stats should be a good reflection.  So far, that’s true.  Normalized for population Team USA and Team Europe have (just about) the same number of gongs.

Countries included in the EU total

GBR – Great Britain
GER – Germany
ITA – Italy
NED – Netherlands
FRA – France
ESP – Spain
ROU – Romania
POL – Poland
NOR – Norway
CZE – Czech Republic
SVK – Slovakia
HUN – Hungary
DEN – Denmark
SUI – Switzerland
SLO – Slovenia
BUL – Bulgaria
FIN – Finland
LAT – Latvia
BEL – Belgium
EST – Estonia
POR – Portugal
SWE – Sweden
CRO – Croatia
LTU – Lithuania
GRE – Greece
AUT – Austria
SRB – Serbia
IRL – Ireland

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