Who's counting?

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 August, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 August, 2008, 12:00am

The Olympic Games are always mesmerising. Competition among the world's best athletes is exciting and, for 16 days in Beijing, we were able to watch great performances. Olympic opening and closing ceremonies are good to observe, not least for what they tell us about the host nation. In general, we need less politics and chauvinism, but there is something exhilarating about watching the best of the best.

We will remember the most outstanding performances and also the greatest disappointments. American swimmer Michael Phelps sweeping up eight gold medals, Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt's stupendous victories, and Chinese diver Guo Jingjing's multiple medals were all exceptional moments. It will also be hard to forget the failure of the US men's and women's sprint relay teams, as well as the Jamaican women, as they fumbled their baton passes. There were many other palpable moments.

We expected the major countries to field impressive teams. For example, we always knew Chinese, American and Russian athletes would do well and would rival each other in many events. While their sports are very differently organised, each has strong training facilities. The Americans took the most medals - 110 in total, but the Chinese swept up the largest number of golds - 51, with a total of 100 medals, while the Russians won 72 medals in all.

Arithmetic is important but, over the course of time, it will become harder to remember the exact number of medals that a particular country won. Talent, hard work, winning and losing are the stuff of enduring stories of the human condition. This is why the Olympic Games also provoke alternative medal counting. Simon Forsyth, a researcher in Brisbane, has produced a set of interesting tables.

If population size is factored in to the number of gold medals or the total number of medals won by a country, then Jamaica wins hands down on both counts. This small nation, with only 2.8 million people, dominated the sprinting events, winning 11 medals including 6 golds, and broke three world records. Using total gold medals by population size, Bahrain came second; it has only 720,000 people and took gold in the men's 1,500 metres.

When counting gold medals won against total population, China ranked 47th, the US 33rd and Russia 25th. New Zealand, with a population of only 4.2 million, took nine medals, including three golds, putting it in fourth place. Denmark, a country with about 5.5 million people, won seven medals, including two golds, giving it 14th place. Australia and Britain did well using this alternative counting method, coming fifth and 15th respectively, with 14 and 19 golds.

Among Asian countries, South Korea placed highest, in 19th place, with 31 medals including 13 golds, followed by North Korea in 40th place, with six medals, including two golds and Japan in 43rd, with 25 medals, nine of which were gold. Indonesia took 54th place, with five medals including one gold, and India was in 55th, with three medals including one gold.

The table looks very different when medals are weighted against a country's economic performance, measured by its gross domestic product - with one big exception: Jamaica still wins.

The alternative tables did not escape our national media. On Saturday, Xinhua reported on Mr Forsyth's tables and acknowledged Jamaica's achievement. It noted he began publishing these tables in 1996, with the Atlanta Olympics. Xinhua quoted Mr Forsyth as saying: 'My reason for producing and discussing the per-population rankings is simple: to show people there is more than one way to look at results and the first, most obvious, way a person looks at results usually does not mean what they think it means ... The real problem comes when people try to read more meaning into a ranking than there really is.'

So, we can be proud that our athletes won the most golds, but others can also feel very satisfied that their athletes won more golds per head of population. And we can all feel exuberant because we know it is possible to run 100 metres in 9.69 seconds.

Christine Loh Kung-wai is chief executive of the think-tank Civic Exchange