In which I risk being a bit of a Debbie Downer.
Watching and reading coverage of the Olympics, I’ve observed a lot of projections and comparisons involving Canada’s medal haul for 2010 and previous years (the latest example was in a Slate piece by Dahlia Lithwick). I’ve a lot of graphics showing medal totals for the previous Olympics held in Canada.
It’s a rich vein for the media, and a natural one. After all, it’s a sports competitions, where achievements are measured empirically.
I got to thinking about whether those were fair comparisons to make. Surely the number of medals has grown over the past, say, 35 years. And surely the number of participating nations and athletes has grown as well. So, I did what I always do when I wonder about something. I made a chart (click for gold medal bigness):
It shows the number of medals up for grabs at each Olympics, and also the number of nations participating. Interestingly, since 1976, the number of available medals and nations attending have grown at similar rates–they’re at 175% what they were. As you can see, the rate of medals has, recent years, exceeded the growth of participating nations.
And then there’s the number of athletes participating. In 1976, there were roughly 30 athletes per event. In 2010, that’s still the case.
My analysis is pretty rudimentary, but it seems like the amount of competition has stayed consistent over the past 35 years. It’s no more or less difficult to win a medal at the Olympics than it was when I was born.
What do you know? I wasn’t a Debbie Downer after all. Media folks, compare medal counts until your graphic designer cramps up.