Is there a political basis to the ways press in different countries report olympic medal tallies?

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The Politicus
Jul 29, 2021 02:55 PM 0 Answers
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Apologies if this is a bit of an odd question. At the time of writing, the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games are currently underway. Now, I am far from a big sportsperson – but sport to me in many ways seems to be a proxy for many, many other aspects of the human psyche, and when it comes to the Olympics, geopolitical questions inevitably seem to follow hand-in-hand.

Something I was surprised to learn from an American friend is that the conventional ranking of medal results on the New York Times's website was different to that reported in some other outlets -- specifically they rank by the total number of medals overall:

NYT Olympic Results
New York Times homepage, 29-Jul-2021

For contrast, the UK's BBC and The Guardian report the tally by sorting first Gold, Silver and then Bronze, which paints a rather different picture:

Guardian Olympic Results
The Guardian's homepage, 29-Jul-2021

At this point, I wondered if there are any other medal rankings that were commonly used -- I didn't think so – but you could, for example, concoct a "points based system" where, e.g. gold receives 3 points; silver 2; bronze 1; and then rank by the sum of the scores. Out of curiosity, I then looked at a variety of non-english newspapers for "medal tables". I quickly discovered that (a) this is quite hard whilst remaining an ignorant monoglot; and (b) they featured much less prevalently on non-english websites, but that these two systems seemed to cover most opinions on the matter. About the most interesting thing I came across is that China Daily report on the activities of athletes who may well not consider themselves Chinese – but rather Taiwanese, say:
China Daily's olympic coverage
China Daily's homepage, 29-Jul-2021

I therefore wish to ask:

The Olympics is inherently a multinational competition with strong political undertones.

  1. Does the IOC explicitly try to minimise this?
  2. Are "medal tables" (however actually useful they may be) politically "important" or "useful" in a meaningful sense? (I know that they are often used to distribute funding internally in sport, and that the olympics seemed to be very important to the USSR historically, but that is about it)
  3. Therefore, does the metric for comparison in a medal table matter – and does the IOC itself prefer to use a particular ranking algorithm?
  4. If the answers to the above two questions are "yes", are the same tables going to be found globally?

There is a whole separate discussion here about "does high-level sport matter" – which whilst very interesting, I'd perhaps be keener to avoid.

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  • July 29, 2021