Thank God the flag-waving is over for the next 4 years

Now that the London Olympics are over, let's crunch the numbers using a different method to see who really should be standing on the podium

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 August, 2012, 9:33am

The 1980s pop star Morrissey provoked a flurry of outrage in the media last week when he condemned the "blustering jingoism" of London 2012, and described Britain as "foul with patriotism" following the country's success in the Olympics.

Now Morrissey is what the Reverend Spooner would undoubtedly have called "a shining wit", but on this occasion old misery-guts had a point.

For the British press and people suddenly to indulge themselves in an orgy of incontinent flag-flapping simply because the national team managed third place in the medal table - or fourth, depending how you score it - is not only distasteful, it is moronic.

As George Orwell wrote in his 1945 essay The Sporting Spirit: "At the international level sport is frankly mimic warfare. But the significant thing is not the behaviour of the players but the attitude of the spectators: and, behind the spectators, of the nations who work themselves into furies over these absurd contests, and seriously believe - at any rate for short periods - that running, jumping and kicking a ball are tests of national virtue.

"There cannot be much doubt that the whole thing is bound up with the rise of nationalism - that is, with the lunatic modern habit of identifying oneself with large power units and seeing everything in terms of competitive prestige."

So, in the spirit of Orwell, let's have another look at that medal table, and work out whether the Brits - or anyone else - have any real reason to feel pleased with themselves.

Given the size of their talent pool, you would expect countries with large populations to do well in the Olympics. So if everything else were equal, China, with around a fifth of the world's population, should have won 20 per cent of the gold medals on offer, instead of the 13 per cent the Chinese team actually won.

Of course, everything else is not equal. You would also expect rich countries to do better than poor countries.

Rich countries can afford to spend more money on coaching and facilities. What's more, rich countries generate more advertising and sponsorship revenues, so their favoured sports tend to dominate the Games, offering the most medals. As a result, wealthy countries should win more medals per head of population than their poorer rivals.

So if we are to extract any information of value from the medal table, we need to correct countries' scores both for wealth and population size.

First, we need to decide which version of the table to use. Ranking by gold medals alone is unsatisfactory, but so is using a simple total of gold, silver and bronze. A better option is to adopt a weighted system in which a gold medal scores three points, a silver two, and bronze one.

Next, we need to adjust the scores to account for wealth and population. Wealth we can measure using gross domestic product per capita. And in this case, because it is domestic spending power that counts when lavishing funds on sport, we should use GDP per capita at purchasing power parity.

If you multiply this number by population size, you come up with GDP. So in the table here, I've ranked countries by their weighted medal count adjusted for GDP at purchasing power parity.

By this method, the champion by a clear mile is the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada. With a population of just 100,000 and an annual economy smaller than a British bank's regulatory fine, Grenada's achievement in winning the men's 400 metres gold puts every other country in the shade.

Next, with all its sprint golds comes Jamaica, and in third place with a haul of five medals in boxing, judo and wrestling is Mongolia.

Ranked this way, China succeeds in beating the United States. But in 63rd and 64th place respectively out of 85 countries that won medals, neither country exactly covered itself in glory. Hong Kong, with its solitary cycling bronze, comes a lowly 82nd.

By this method, Great Britain ranks 37th. That might sound like a respectable showing. But when you consider that the Brits entered by far the largest team, with 556 competitors, their achievement pales rather.

If you rank countries by the weighted medal score per competitor, Britain comes in only 13th, while China succeeds at last in topping the table. All of which demonstrates a long-standing statistical truth: if you torture the numbers enough, they will tell you whatever you want to hear.