Olympic medal standings should reflect effort, importance

Staff WriterFebruary 22, 2014 

With one full day remaining on the Sochi Olympics schedule, the medal count is led by, well, it sort of depends.

The United States began Saturday with 27 total medals. Russia (26), Canada (24), Norway (22) and the Netherlands (22) rounded out the top five.

The U.S. was in first place, no?

Not according to the Sochi Games website, which bases the standings only on gold medals. By that measure, Norway was leading with 10, followed by Russia, Canada and the U.S. — each with nine — and Germany with eight.

On a list of the 1,000 issues most critical to my life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, the Winter Olympic medal count ranks between No. 994 (thinning my wallet of business cards embossed with names I don’t recognize) and No. 996 (finding a new bulb for the dining room lamp I’ve never turned on). But the medal count seems to be important to somebody because, for the past two weeks, every update from Sochi has referenced it.

So what gives? Is the count based on total medals or gold medals? Again, this is not a matter of life and death — it has the approximate weight of dryer-filter lint to me — but I’ve got this stubborn insistence that if standings are going to be kept, there should be a general consensus on how the standings are assembled.

That there’s confusion over the medal count is no surprise: The International Olympic Committee never has been comfortable with the premise of any nation

“winning” the Games.

The Olympic Charter states: “The IOC and the (organizing committee of the Olympic Games) shall not draw up any global ranking per country.”

Fair enough. But if the competition is not between countries, why do athletes march into the opening ceremony with a flag bearer representing the country’s delegation? Why is the national anthem of the gold-medal winner heard during the podium presentation, where three flags are raised to various heights?

For that matter, why does the official web page of the Sochi Games acknowledge Norway as No. 1? If the Olympic Charter prohibits “drawing up any global ranking per country,” it’s not much of a charter. Last time I checked, Norway was a country, and first was a place.

Here’s a thought for the IOC: Decide whether medal-count standings are even appropriate, and not a violation of the kumbaya spirit espoused by Pierre de Coubertin, the French baron who founded the modern Olympic Games.

If the IOC concludes medal counts are worthy of standings, it could devise any easily comprehended formula that weighs the significance of gold without ignoring the accomplishments of those honored with silver and bronze.

One formula would be to award five points for gold, three for silver and one for bronze. If that system were applied to the Sochi Games, the leader in the clubhouse would be Russia. Through Friday, Russian athletes had won nine gold medals, 10 silver and seven bronze: 82 points. Canada would be in second place with 80 points, and the U.S. would be in third with 77. Norway would be fourth with 70.

The 5-3-1 formula recognizes the strong showings of Russia and Canada in Sochi, and recognizes them more accurately than a scoring system based on either total medals or gold medals. The formula could be further tweaked to address what is obvious: Some medals mean more than others.

If that sounds crass, sorry, but it’s the truth. A gold medal earned in, say, a short track speedskating relay — four skaters covering 5,000 meters in less than seven minutes — cannot be seen as substantial as a gold medal won in hockey, which requires as many as 25 players to compete in six 60-minute games.

Brighter minds than mine, I’m sure, can figure out a medal-standings system that puts more stock in the sustained effort of a hockey team than four participants in a relay. Whatever formula is ascertained, Canada makes a strong case for the top: Its women’s hockey team rebounded from a late two-goal deficit against the United States on Thursday to force overtime in an epic 3-2 victory, and its men’s team beat the U.S. on Friday in a dominant performance that belied the 1-0 score.

It wasn’t close. Canada was faster to the puck, more aggressive on offense, more resilient on defense and more commanding in the neutral zone. Nothing is certain about a game played on ice — a game steeped in the improbable bounces of a hard rubber puck — but if Canada doesn’t beat Sweden in the gold-medal game Sunday, it will be a surprise bordering on a shock.

And yet, the Sochi Games could conclude with the U.S. atop one version of the medal standings and Norway atop another.

If the IOC isn’t on board with medal standings — and the Olympic Charter suggests as much — medal standings shouldn’t be posted on the Sochi Games web page. If the IOC accepts the reality that medal standings are an inevitable consequence of international competition, it needs to establish a points system any third-grade math student can comprehend.

Gold trumps all? Really? In 2014, that’s the basis of the IOC’s medal standings?

It’s so Bronze Age.

john.mcgrath@ thenewstribune.com

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