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Counting Medals -- 2008 Beijing Games

Is finishing second or third important? Chinese and American publications use different methods to represent their countries' success in the games.
August 13, 2008

Among the many stories of determination and perserverance yielding triumph at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing is Abhinav Bindra's. Bindra became the first Indian athlete to win a gold medal, winning the men's 10 meter air rifle contest. Bindra's gold medal triumph stimulated immense national pride in India. He received $60,000 from the Cricket Control Board and a lifetime railway pass from the Railway Ministry. Neither organization sponsored Bindra or his teammates, but both want to recognize his achievement.

Medal winners are often national heroes and sometimes translate their Olympic victories into lucrative endorsement or  sports commentator deals. Few, though, have enjoyed the post-Olympics economic success of Li Ning, who won six medals, including four golds, in gymnastics at the Los Angeles Olympics. Li and his brother own 266.8 million shares of the sportswear company that bears his name. His firm received plenty of free publicity when Li was selected to be the final torchbearer, literally lifted by wires to ignite the torch mounted on the roof of Beijing's "Bird's Nest" Olympic Stadium. When Li Ning company stock shot up in value the first day following the opening, Li and his brother's personal value increased by US $30 million. Overall, however, the stock is down 34% in 2008. 

While many fans celebrate the achievements of athletes of whatever nationality, the organizational structure of the Olympics emphasizes the nation. Most atheletes compete representing nations (Puerto Rico, for example, is an exception with its own delegation). Success in competition results in the flying of the national flag and the playing of the national anthem. And in some places, national medal counts feature prominently in news reports. Here are two medal count tables from leading United States newspapers.


Both the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times rank nations according to the total number of medals earned by athletes wearing those countries' colors. Three leading Chinese websites use a different approach.

The People's Daily is the official newspaper of China's Communist Party. It offers information in many languages including Chinese and English. 


 Sina and Sohu are two of China's most popular web portals. They lined up advertisers, retailer Wal-Mart and applicance maker Haier, to sponsor their medal tallies.


The Chinese news outlets offer rankings based on the number of gold medals won.

After the first days of the 2008 Games, athletes representing China have won 17 gold medals, 7 more than athletes representing the United States. Athletes wearing U.S. uniforms have won the most medals altogether, 29, slightly ahead of the 27 medals won by athletes wearing China's colors. Using both approaches, South Korea places third.

In its medal tables for previous Olympics, the International Olympic Committee uses the same approach as the Chinese publications are employing. A country's position on those lists is a function of its gold medal total. (Click here to see the 2004 Athens totals. Note that Germany had 49 total medals, yet is ranked below Japan which had 37 total medals but more gold ones.)