Now that the Sochi games are done, here are a couple of finishing thoughts.
First on the medal count: Russia wins with 13 golds and 33 total medals, but who comes in second? Norway with 11 golds (but only 26 total), or the US with 28 total (but only 9 golds)? The international media always ranks countries according to the number of golds (then silver, then bronze), and this is in fact the official IOC protocol (and what google defaults to, for the record). The american media always ranks by total medals (with golds and then silvers as tie-breakers), which would in fact benefit the US in this case but obviously shouldn’t either help or hurt on average, so I don’t think it’s parochialism at work.
I had this discussion years ago with a european friend, and he found the american system bizarre. I am by definition more used to it, and I honestly think that if I had to choose between these two I would pick the american way: it gives you a more robust sense of how any given country is doing overall. But mostly what I find strange is that the seemingly obvious best way to do it is neither of these. Instead give 3 points for a gold; 2 for a silver; and 1 for a bronze. This combines the two criteria in a natural way. In this case russia would get 70, while norway and the US would exactly tie at 53… but canada would be second with 55!
I suppose people might not like it because the points don’t have the same concrete interpretation that specific medals do, but it’s really not that hard to comprehend and internalize. Or maybe the scores seem ad hoc – e.g. an exponential version would give 1 for bronze, 2 for silver, and then 2^2=4 for gold (but then shouldn’t one also give 0.5 for fourth place?). Well maybe, but I think my choice is fairly canonical, so I like it overall. The better argument by the norwegians (and to a lesser extent the canadians) is that these should all be per capita in the first place.
My second thought is about which sports to watch. This has been a theme of mine for some time, e.g. discussing women’s sports. Here I want to focus on a different dimension: how objective the outcome is. Some sports are almost purely subjective (figure skating, snowboard half-pipe, etc), and I tend to find them quite frustrating. I’m occasionally happy to watch the best in the world do them, but never happy to see them get judged when often they are extremely close and there simply isn’t a winner, given that the criteria are not well-defined, other than via biased (which we all are) human input. To me it’s like trying to score the best poem on a 0-100 scale and pretending that it intrinsically means something. Mountaineering is an incredible sport, but it just doesn’t work as competition (and in some ways that’s a real strength). Similarly I love watching videos of skiers jumping off cliffs, but the aerials skiing in the olympics feels homogenized in order to be scored, and I have no interest.
The women’s figure skating gold medal this year was highly controversial, and not for the first time in that sport. But they keep thinking they can solve this issue by changing the scoring rules, or decreasing corruption among the judges (which would be a good start), when the real problem is much deeper as above. On the flip side are the purely objective sports, …