Can a nation be both 16th and 44th in Olympic medals?

How a nation can be both 16th and 44th in Olympic medals

In much of the world, the country at the top of the table is the one with the most gold medals

The United States is first this year no matter how you count. Credit: AFP Photo

All of the medals have been awarded at the Tokyo Olympics. But how did each country do? That depends on whom you ask — and how they count.

Most news organisations in the United States, including The New York Times, sort countries according to the total number of medals won, with gold, silver and bronze counting equally.

But in much of the rest of the world, the country at the top of the table is the one with the most gold medals.

Read more: A memorable Olympics, but for the right reasons?

Because of a last-day surge in gold medals by the United States, either way of counting puts the Americans at the top in the final tally. (The US finished with 39 golds to China’s 38, and 113 overall medals to China’s 88.) But that hasn’t always been the case. The most recent split came in Sochi in 2014, with the Russian Federation winning the most medals but Norway winning 11 golds to Russia’s 10.

There have been other ways of sorting that are not as easily captured in a simple medals table. In some of the early Olympics, a point system was used to rank the participating nations. But there was never clear agreement on how many points each medal should be worth — or even whether medals from certain sports should count for more than others.

Every four years, the organising committee of the host nation would decide anew how many points to assign to each medal. In London, in 1908, gold medals were worth three points, silvers two and bronzes one. Four years later, in Stockholm, gold medals were worth five points, and silvers were worth three.

In the 1924 Games, the top six places each earned points: 10 for first, then five, four, three, two and one for places No. 2 through No. 6. Despite the International Olympic Committee’s official disapproval of all ranking methods, the 10-5-4-3-2-1 point system was adopted by publications around the country in the decades that followed, including at the Times.

In the 1960s, the results appearing in the Times moved away from medal points and toward the standard medal tables that are used today — but sorted by gold medals, rather than by total.

In 1976, this meant that the United States ranked third behind the USSR and East Germany. Counting by total medals, however, the US would have ranked second — the first time in the history of the Summer Games that the US ranked lower by counting golds than by counting total medals.

In most of the Games after that, publications in the US, including the Times — many of them using sports statistics and tables supplied by The Associated Press — have generally published tables ranked by total medal count.

Which way of counting is best? It’s possible none of them are. Maybe the ideal method is somewhere in between.

The United States is first this year no matter how you count, but other countries, like Ukraine and Turkey, can end up in quite different places. It’s up to you to decide which is best.