Olympic Success - when 24 athletes = 1 medal

Published April 11, 2010

One of the goals of Canada’s Own the Podium funding program was to ‘Place first in the total medal count at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games’.  Canada received some criticism for baldly stating that goal.  But it is common for host countries to increase their sport funding in advance of the Olympic Games.  It is also common for host countries to tailor their sport development programs toward increasing their medal count.

For example, before the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, the Chinese government created ‘Project 119’ which was named after the number of Olympic gold medals available in certain sports.  China recognized that there were a high number of gold medals available in Track and Field, Swimming, Rowing, Canoe/Kayak, and Sailing.  In order to ‘win’ the Olympics that they were hosting, China focused its sport development programs (and funding) on those targeted sports. The strategy seemed to work – as China finished with more gold medals than any other country.  The United Kingdom recently announced medal targets for 2012 as part of their Mission 2012 strategy.

China believed that they ‘won’ the 2008 Summer Olympics because they finished with 51 gold medals compared to the USA’s 36 gold medals.  But the USA also claimed victory because they finished with more total medals than China (110 to 100).  Who is right?  Outside of North America, nations consider gold medals to be ‘worth more’ than other medals and arrange medal standings to reflect this approach.


Other approaches to determining Olympic success include adjusting for national population, adjusting for GDP, or even eliminating the judged events.

The current approach to counting medals rewards individual sport athletes rather than team sport athletes.  One individual athlete may even participate in eight events (Michael Phelps – Swimming) and contribute to the total medal count eight times.  It is no surprise that China decided to ‘target’ swimming as one of the sports to increase funding – there is simply more opportunity for success at the Olympic level.  A well-funded swimmer could potentially add eight gold medals for the total.  But to win a single gold medal in a team sport, like basketball (a roster of 12), funding has to be extended to multiple athletes.

  • Individual (Swimming):  Cost x 1 = 8
  • Team (Basketball):  Cost x 12 = 1

Further, most individual sports allow multiple entrants.  A country could potentially fund four Phelps-like male swimmers, and enter seven individual men’s swimming events (winning gold, silver, and bronze) along with placing in one of the four-man swimming relays.  With just those four swimmers, a country could participate in eight swimming events, and win 22 medals.

If we combine the men’s and women’s swimming events, there are 90 possible medals that can be achieved by success in the sport.  Ice hockey has 2 possible medals.

In another sport, diving, there are 24 available medals for athletes.  Again, since athletes can participate in multiple diving events, only a minimum of six athletes would be required to completely sweep all of the diving events and obtain all 24 medals.

If Sport Canada wanted to achieve ‘medal standing’ Olympic success – then pouring funding into Diving Plongeon Canada would be a good start.  Luckily (hopefully?), Sport Canada realizes that success in sport is not completely measured by total Olympic medal counts.

But with such a heavy emphasis on medal count and the promotion of medal standings as an indicator of Olympic success, team sport has inevitably become less of a focus for national funding and sport development.  However, countries ignore team sport at their own peril.  A 2010 report revealed, among other findings, that most athletes begin their sport careers in a team sport.  Further, participating in a team sport teaches athletes positive personal characteristics (like leadership, conflict resolution, and sportsmanship) that contribute to overall athlete well-being.

How can we recognize Olympic success without marginalizing team sport athletes?

One solution would be to count the actual number of medals that went home with athletes.  Winning in a team sport, like men’s hockey, would count 24 medals toward the total (one medal for each athlete on the roster) instead of the current 1 medal.  Multi-sport athletes would still be valuable – Michael Phelps would still count 8 medals – but these athletes’ successes would not diminish a successful team effort.

Check out OTP Charts for a breakdown of the 2006 medal standings if we counted the actual number of medals that went home with athletes after the Turin Olympic Winter Games.  The 2010 numbers from Vancouver are similar – but with the USA on top with 96 medals going home to athletes, Canada with 91 medals, and Germany with 54 medals.

Originally published: Centre for Sport and Law Newsletter (2010) Vol. 6(2)


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