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Olympic bites
Quick comments on the good, bad and ugly of the London 2012 Games from spiked writers.
Friday 10 August 2012
At the Olympics, it’s the gold standard that counts
Patrick Hayes

Team GB is doing well - 25 Olympic golds means that Britain is pretty safe in third place. There is, for once, no need to rationalise our performance. Yet, in some quarters, there’s an active desire to cut the data in ways to show that Britain remains a nation of sporting losers.

Jared Diamond, for example, has been busy analysing the losers of all of the Olympics events so far for the Wall Street Journal, awarding ‘medals’ for those who come in last place, and second and third to last. In doing so, he’s found Team GB has topped the ‘loser rankings’.

Not to be outdone, the Guardian has been working with numerous statisticians to produce an ‘alternative medals table’, looking at performance by population size, GDP and number of entrants. Surprise, surprise, Team GB topples down the rankings there too – ranking 37th if GDP is taken into account, 13th considering population size, and 12th considering team size.

China and the US fare even worse if population is taken into account. Indeed it has often been argued that Team GB is at a great disadvantage against these two more populous nations as the more people there are, the more likely it is that there will be better athletes out there to be found.

Such arguments tend to be overly deterministic - and often falsifiable. India, for example, hasn’t gained a single gold so far, despite being the second-most populated country on Earth. Yet Jamaica has three golds, even though it has a population about 400 times smaller. Australia has an almost identical profile compared to four years ago, but its performance this time is dire by comparison. Other things are evidently at play that data alone can’t explain.

Playing with the stats can be fun, but it’s daft when it’s used to suggest certain countries are at an unfair advantage, and that results should be weighted accordingly. The Olympic spirit can’t be reduced to demographics, or economic prosperity. Ultimately only one thing should count for athletes at the Olympics – whether you are the best. The Olympics is rightly run according to this gold standard.

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