Changing China

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Who’s top of the medals table?

August 19, 2008

Phelps with the great eightAmericans looking at the medals table to the right of this blog, or on the official Games website, might be surprised to see the host country topping the chart with 39 gold medals and 68 in total.

The New York Times website, meanwhile, has the United States on top with a chart-leading 73 medals in total, 23 of them gold.

We at Reuters rank nations by the number of golds. It’s the way the IOC does it and, according to Reuters sports editor Paul Radford, it’s the way that makes most sense.

Here’s what Paul had to say when I asked him about it:

Reuters serves international clients across the whole world and most of them want their medals tables prioritised by gold medals. It seems that it is mainly North America which takes a different attitude and where the total number of medals is the criterion used.

I can’t see the logic of the total medals system at all. That means giving the same value to a bronze medal as you would to a gold. If you look at the expression on athletes’ faces as they just finish second or third, it’s often one of disappointment that they did not get gold and the chance to call themselves Olympic champions; it’s less often delight at being a silver or bronze medallist unless they started as rank outsiders.

Some people say the silver medallist is the first of the losers. I think that’s a bit harsh personally but you can take the point. Look at it another way. If Michael Phelps had won six golds and two silvers, would anyone have described that as a greater achievement than Mark Spitz’s seven-gold medal haul? The answer is clearly not.

So we’ll stick to the logical order of running our table in gold medals order. If that puts China first and the United States second, then so be it. Our aim is to be objective and favour no nation above any other.

Do you agree? Let us know in the comments.

PHOTO: A combination photo shows Michael Phelps of the U.S. holding each of his eight gold medals in the swimming competition at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. REUTERS/Staff


I don’t understand why you would do it any other way. You can’t seriously say that gold is of equal worth to silver or bronze. It’s absurd. I suppose you could do it on points, with five for gold, three for silver and one for bronze or something, but you’d never get everyone to agree.

Posted by jef | Report as abusive

and i see phelps is now off the top page of the medals. shame.

Posted by jef | Report as abusive

By golds is the best way. The points system as mentioned by jef would be a good measure of overall sporting performance, but it’s the champions that are always remembered most.

Posted by Owen Cattigan | Report as abusive

The only reason why the Americans publish the table with the total medals being the key factor is because they don’t ever want to lose at anything, especially to the Chinese. China are head and shoulders above everybody in the medals haul and people should be able to praise them fairly.

Posted by Dan | Report as abusive

haha~~i quite agree with the author,that was true

Posted by Elaine | Report as abusive

The WSJ had a good article on it. Apparently it’s been done a lot longer, before either China or the US was a competitive force.The IOC is technically NOT supposed to show favoritism to rankings at all, because it is against the spirit of the Games.But people still do it. The shortcomings of a gold-first system seems to be that it seems to deprive funding from non-gold sports it seems.

Posted by Jack | Report as abusive

It would be fairer if, regardless of the value of the medal, the league tables were set using “medals against millions”; that is looking at the national pool of people a country has to choose from against medals won. Using this as a benchmark, China sits last among the top ten with the US also performing lamentably. As of Monday, the Aussies were at the top with the UK third.

Posted by Grant Davis | Report as abusive

Commenting on the above post.If you look to past Olympic Medal tables from North American news/sports sources you will in fact see they used to rank by Gold first. Hmm!To be honest though, I’m quite enjoying the little rivalry between USA/China and also Britain/Australia!

Posted by Larry | Report as abusive

It makes sense in this way to rank it according to the number of gold medals won. And I agree with Owen. People always remembered the winners, and not those who came in second and/or third.

Posted by diana | Report as abusive

So who’s that in 3rd? C’mon you Brits! no more Aussie rule! Bring on the Aussie whinging. Next up – the Ashes.A chuffed Brit.

Posted by Stephen | Report as abusive

Totally agree. it is golds first and should be. This is just another example of America’s arrogance and their inability to be good sportsmen and ‘admit’ that China are doing better than them.

Posted by Jon | Report as abusive

The Americans are the real loosers in the medal tables. Coming second to the Chinese is understandable but they are only a little ahead of small countries such as GB and Australia. Shame on America and the way it corrupts the truth to make it self seem better than it is. Perhaps they should do some more growing up!

Posted by Stuart beesley | Report as abusive

It’s only a cultural difference. In North America, we tend to congradulate all athletes. I think even the person coming in last has done amazing to even be able to compete in the olypmics. So gold medal prioritization works for most, but in the U.S. we prefer the total medal count.

Posted by Steven | Report as abusive


Posted by Steven | Report as abusive

The Americans will have a supporter for this way of recording success, Australia.

Posted by Howard Rees | Report as abusive

I wrote about this also on my blog. It seems crazy to rank countries by total medals. Some sports have two bronze medals like wrestling. Like many things in this world, the US likes to do things their own way, even if they are wrong.


There’s nothing wrong with being really good in what you do. I really don’t understand all those narrow eyed people that have bad things to say about this.


Anyone that watches subjective events, e.g Gymnastics, knows there is a bias towards the host country.

Posted by Mark | Report as abusive

If we must be obsessed by national rather than personal Olympic achievements, doesn’t this all disguise a bigger ‘medal count’ blind spot? – how amazingly well some small countries achieve. Have a look at sites such as mpic.html which relate medals according to population, (and use a good compromise 3-2-1 medal points system)China has 20% of the world’s population, it currently has about 20% of the golds (or 12% of all medals) Jamaica and Australia(currently top, or near top, of this fair table) are ‘outperforming’ China by 15 times, or the US by 6 times. I admire all 4 nations, but I’m a national of none of them. (A Scot!)

Posted by Neil | Report as abusive

I think the two counting systems should be blended. Gold could count as one, Silver as 2/3 and Bronze as 1/3. This modified count would reflect both the importance of the gold and the accomplishments of the 2nd and 3rd place winners.

Posted by S S | Report as abusive

Hopefully China will top both Gold and total medal list… I wait with abated breath to see if US decide to rank by bronze then… HAHAHA

Posted by Rui | Report as abusive

Neil, I liked your post. I also wonder what the medal count by country would look like if we compared it to each nation’s GDP (gross domestic product). Most of the top medal winners have high GDP’s.

Posted by S S | Report as abusive

Sorry about that. Comments got held up for a while for some reason. All there now, I hope.

Posted by Kevin Fylan | Report as abusive

Nobody would say the silver or bronze carries the same weight as the gold. Nobody. So why are we even talking about it?What we should be talking about is that there are thousands of athletes competing in the Olympics and only one gold per event, whether it be the 400m medley in swimming or the decathalon. Clearly gold in the pinnacle.However, there are two other medals which deserve credit and applause. We shouldn’t feel sorry for the bronze medalist or tell the silver medalist “too bad buddy, had you been 1/100 of a second faster…”. That’s not fair. We should take our hats off to all the medalists and say “well done, athletes, well done. You’ve made your country proud”. It doesn’t matter if that country be the U.S, China, G.B, Kenya, Czech Republic…I think that’s the reasoning behind a total medal count. At least that’s the way I see it.

Posted by Kristian | Report as abusive

Neil, I agree wholeheartedly those small nations have achieved amazing results. However, it is unfair to judge a country’s performance by its population, if nothing else because of the limit a participating country can enter in a particular sport. If the limit is removed, US would probably sweep all basketball medals, China all table tennis metals, etc…So if you do a gold per millions of people small country are definitely going to win out.

Posted by Lucy | Report as abusive

Steven – just to make you aware: people outside of north America (Europe, Asia) also congratulate their Olympians. However, they do not rank by total medal. On the other hand, why would the US men’s basketball team be called the Redeem Team, if the US is ok with any medal? Come on now, at least admit you guys are sore losers.

Posted by Rui | Report as abusive

And Neil. Interestingly, I posted on this a while back. Australia and Jamaica do indeed deserve special praise. 08/08/09/will-bahamas-top-medals-table-a gain/

Posted by Kevin Fylan | Report as abusive

Glad to see Grant’s similar thinking on ‘medals-per-population’{‘Polympic’table)  , once the postings hold-up had cleared.And yes SS, I did the equally valid ‘per GDP’ calculation some years back. Please post results if you’ve the current GDP data!The ‘true’ Polympic top 5 at the Athens Olympics were Bahamas, Australia, Cuba, Hungary, Jamaica.

Posted by Neil | Report as abusive

I agree with SS: give value to all medals. I would probably choose Gold 3, Silver 2, Bronze 1, just to simplify.Some medals are separated by 100ths of a second! Can we say: “Sorry, your performance is valueless based on a 1/100th of a second.”

Posted by Jim | Report as abusive

Neil: if Olympics medal rank is by per capita, then Phelps should declare independence!

Posted by Rui | Report as abusive

i don’t understand.. almost everyone else in the world apart from US use the most-golds tally.. the most-medals tally doesn’t make sense at’s like saying a bronze is same as a gold..

Posted by amy | Report as abusive

-(Polympics contd)Lucy -agreed there is a small bias to small countries as you suggest(I did try a rough ‘factor’ for this in 2000) but I think (proper statistician needed!) it’s less than expected. There are very many small(under 5-10M?)countries getting no medals.Kevin -your earlier ‘bahamas’ post seems to have gone!Rui -interesting; if Lucy’s right he may get even more!Thought -the world awards about 1 Gold per 20M people.

Posted by Neil | Report as abusive

The best way to think of this is mathematically. Counting the golds is the only thing that makes sense. If you add a forth position, then a fifth, then a sixth… etc. you’ll gradually converge on the principle that the highest population gives you the most medals, regardless of who won.But size of population is important. Australia does amazingly well given the population size. Perhaps the number of golds divided by population would be the fairest way to determine ‘winning country’.

Posted by Nic Fulton | Report as abusive

I prefer overall medal count. By basing it on golds you are saying only golds count. I mean if you have a country with 1 gold, 20 silver, and 13 bronze, is that not more impressive than a nation with 3 gold, 5 silver and 1 bronze? Perhaps the point system mentioned above would be a good compromise.

Posted by John | Report as abusive

Of course it should be gold medals the table is based on! To some extent I do agree with the old “its the taking part that counts” but I also believe “if your not fast your last” which means unfortunately America I have to tell you your loosing to china! I suppose you could make some films in a year or too which draws a different picture…………………A little bit like the war.

Posted by Rossco | Report as abusive

I suspect France, while disagreeing with the US in almost everything, will also be publishing the medal table in the US way. In fact to watch French television it is obvious that France is TOP of any medals table however it’s construed


It has to be done on amount of golds, it always has been and I’m sure when I was a kid there was a point system 3 for a gold 2 for a silver and 1 for a bronze, and the points would be at the end of the medals in a fourth column.

Posted by chris evans | Report as abusive

That’s the way the IOC has always ranked the medals table. It’s just typical American media trying to brainwash people into believing USA is number one.

Posted by JOE | Report as abusive

Let’s look at the numbers, people. Since the beginning of the Olympics, the US has won:Gold: 897Silver: 693.5Bronze: 606.5TOTAL: 2197The closest country is the old Soviet Union/Unified team with 1112 total medals. We have TWICE as many medals our closest rival (who no longer exists).That’s dominance.Here’s another measure of dominance. If you add the 2004 Summer Olympics and the 2006 Winter Olympics together, the Americans exceeds any other country by a wide margin:2004 Summer Olympics (rank #1)G(36) / S(39) / B(27) total: 1022006 Winter Olympics (rank #2)G(9) / S(9) / B(7) total: 25That’s 127 medals for the combined summer and winter Olympics. Compare that with any other country and you’ll simply have to bow down to our hegemonic stranglehold on competitive international sports.By the way, in the 2006 Turin Winter Olympics, GB got one medal. Woo-hoo!

Posted by Jeffrey in New York | Report as abusive

Is it still not a massive achievement for your country to be the 2nd best in the world at something, surely silver and bronze should count.

Posted by Tommy | Report as abusive

Surely the best way to take both positions into account is to ascribe a points system that gives 3 to gold, 2 to silver and 1 to bronze?

Posted by Peter Reglar | Report as abusive

It’s nice to win and to be top. But why would anyone want to claim DOMINANCE?


Somehow most have missed the point. This is about the athletes; not which country wins. Since when did this have to do with being a loser if you dont get gold. That takes away from the spirit of sportsmanship.Look at the medal count any way you want and quit worrying about how it is printed, who cares? It is easy to be armchair athlete, try competing yourself then give opinion you will feel differently. Hats off to all who made it there, I congratulate you for your achievement.

Posted by DONT | Report as abusive

Phil,It’s good to be the king.Heh heh. That’s a Mel Brooks reference.By the way, another way to look at all of this is to remark on the strong sporting tradition among the Anglosphere countries, with the Americans and the Australians always in the top-five with the Brits usually in the top-ten. The rivalry between the Americans and the Aussies in swimming, for example, is a very good thing for both countries. We push each other to be better.Also, in my opinion, you have to look at how each medal was won. I value Shalene Flanagan’s bronze medal in the 10000 probably more than some of the other gold and silver medals won by Americans. She pushed herself to her limit to get a medal in a race dominated by runners from other countries.At the same time, when commenters here bring up numbers, they better be able to look at ALL of them.

Posted by Jeffrey in New York | Report as abusive

Both methods of how to gauge a country’s success in the Olympics are important and flawed. One puts too much emphasis on second and third place finishers and the other puts too little (they do bother to give out silver and bronze medals, don’t they?). This is not an absolute science here folks and it’s not a US government conspiracy meant too bolster the sagging egos of us poor Americans. Both tallies give a sense of a country’s overall accomplishments. And it’s only sport, for heaven’s sake.

Posted by Frank | Report as abusive

Phil,Let me also mention one of the most moving gold medal performances: Matthias Steiner from Germany won the gold in the 105kg weightlifting class and on the podium he held up a photo of his wife who had been killed in a car accident the year before. Competing through all kinds of pain is also what the Olympics are about, I believe.

Posted by Jeffrey in New York | Report as abusive

Swimming & gymnastics make up a lot of medals. If the country has money (US) or actively sponsors athletes (China), you will do well. In fact, there are many medals for the great sport of CURLING and for beach volleyall – whereas for hockey, soccer, cricket, etc -played by billions, there is only 1 each. IOC needs to seriously look at the whole system again.

Posted by Ray | Report as abusive

Stop moving the goalposts to suit the USA. One Gold outweighs a million silvers. Deal with it and stop belly aching.

Posted by Mr UK | Report as abusive

Oh dear, here we go again…the americans making up new rules again. Only do this when they arfe getting beat. If the americans had more gold, less medals total, you bet they would still be showing top of the list. Good for China, brilliant work brilliant show. ron uk.

Posted by ron uk | Report as abusive

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