17 August 2008

Only As Good As Gold

Do you know that the Buffalo Bills were the most successful NFL franchise in the 1990s? Or that Jan Ullrich tied Lance Armstrong as the greatest riders in the history of the Tour de France?

Senseless? Hey, it's the same logic that U.S. media outlets follow when it comes to the Olympics medal tables - including this one.

The world over, the medal tables are arranged according to the most number of gold medals accumulated - check out BBC, l'Equipe, Der Spiegel, The Australian, Globe and Mail, Japan Times, South China Morning Post ... I could go on and on.

Not to mention the IOC, the governing body of the Olympic Games.

But here in the USA, without exception, medal tables are ranked according to total number of medals won by each country. A few publications let you sort it however you want, but the default mode is always total number of medals.

In a country imbued with much sports culture and heritage, we should know better than that. When it comes to sporting events, it's victory uber alles. Silver medals are for losers. Just ask Jim Kelly how he feels about finishing second four times.

This disparity of how medal tables are arranged will become a big topic as the Beijing Olympics move into the second week. It's likely that for only the fourth time - and the first since the Tokyo Games in 1964 - that the country with the most medals won't be the one with the most golds.

While U.S. publications continue to tout America's "lead" in the standings, the rest of the world sees China as the front-runner. The Chinese have a commanding advantage in gold medals - 35 to the U.S.'s 19 as of Sunday - even though the U.S. is clinging onto a slim overall medals lead. Without a particularly strong track and field contingent, it's unlikely that the U.S. would catch China for the most golds.

With that, America's 12-year-run as the Olympic hegemon will be over. China may not end up with the most medals, but it will have the most of what matters.

And it won't even be all that close.

Olympics with Different Leaders in Gold and Overall Medals

1896 - 1. USA (11 gold, 20 total), 2. Greece (10, 46)
1912 - 1. USA (25, 63), 2. Sweden (24, 65)
1964 - 1. USA (36, 90), 2. Soviet Union (30, 96)
2008* - 1. China (35, 61), 2. USA (19, 65)

* Through Sunday, Aug. 17

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