The Metric System

Tag: The Metric System

We’re #22!

MedalsEvery two years sportscasters around the nation and around the world keep track of Olympic glory by reporting the medal count.  Currently, the Netherlands leads the pack with 17 medals, with the U.S. and Russian Federation close behind at 16.

But is that really a fair comparison?  The U.S. has almost 20 times as many people as the Netherlands and therefore 20 times more citizens who could potentially excel in dancing on ice, skeet shooting, curling, or bandying (?).   It would be like measuring economic development by total GDP rather than per-capita GDP (wait, we do that, too).

That’s why it’s refreshing that the good folks at are keeping it real for us, taking the total medal count and dividing by the population. “Olympic Glory in Proportion” is their motto, and I couldn’t agree more.

With that adjustment, tiny Norway with just 5 million people (fewer people than in Wisconsin!) is in the lead, with the Netherlands falling to fourth.   Slovenia, with a mere two million people, has racked up five medals and is in the second spot.  The U.S. is a distant 22nd place.  Owie. 

They also weight medals based per dollar of GDP, which really shakes things up.  With this adjustment, Latvia, Slovenia, and Belarus are completely dusting the competition.

In case anyone was wondering, Hungary has yet to medal in these Olympics, so the per capita adjustment doesn’t do much in this case.  Indeed, the proud Hungarian nation hasn’t had a medal in the Winter Games since the indomitable Krisztina Regőczy and András Sallay took silver in the ice dancing back in 1980.

I guess since it was a silver medal they were somewhat domitable.

Well, Just Wait Until the Winter Games

We’re #8!

Some of you are aware that the summer Olympics have been taking place over the past few weeks, with athletes all around the world convening in London to kick each other, swim and dive in perfect synchronicity, throw balls into nets, and perform other feats of strength. As a way of monitoring each country’s progress, it is customary for the IOC and the media to keep a tally of how many medals each country has accumulated and then talking about it as if it had some great import. This year the United States amassed a whopping 104 total medals, with the People’s Republic of China coming in a distant second with 88 and Great Britain with a mere 65.

That metric never seemed quite right to me, though, because many events seem kind of like made up sports, and others involve teams, yet the team victory seems to just count as one medal.

Those issues aside, there is also the more fundamental issue that a country like, say, Grenada doesn’t have very many people in it.  Indeed, it might be the case that the Chinese sent more athletes to London than the entire population of Grenada combined. Yet, Grenada and China are set on equal footing in the ubiquitous Medal Count competition.

That’s why we’re fortunate to have Medals Per Capita dot Com keeping it real for us. The site does what you’d expect, adjusting the medals count based on population to produce the coveted “population per medals” metric.

And, on that score, the rankings change dramatically.  Indeed, tiny Grenada, with only 110,821 people, leads the way with one medal and a population per medal score of 110,821.   This bests second-place Jamacia’s score of 225,485 by a lot.  But Jamacia did come in with an astonishing 12 medals despite having a population slightly larger than the Pittsburgh metro area. Trinidad and Tobago and the Bahamas are also among the top five.

I should also mention — before somebody does it for me — that Hungary is an impressive 8th with 17 medals for a population of 10 million, which is about one medal per 600,000 inhabitants.

What about the “medals count winners”?  Well, the mighty US with its 104 medals is only about one medal per three million people, good for a measly 49th place, while China is way down in 74th on a per capita basis, with only a medal per 15 million people.

So, to put things in perspective, a simple linear extrapolation suggests that if Grenada had China’s population, it would have amassed more than 12,000 medals. In contrast, with 84 medals per 1.3 billion people, if China had Grenada’s population, it would have netted only 0.0068 medals.

On the one hand, this illustrates why it is probably a good idea not to put too much stock in linear extrapolations, but on the other hand, these types of comparisons are important, as any sort of comparative analysis needs to have some reasonable baseline or measure of perspective.

The Medals per Capita dot Com page has a whole menu of metrics for you to play with, so with the fall term at least a week away, go ahead and start playing.