We’re on the ground in Rio covering the 2016 Summer Olympics. Check out all our coverage here.
Because the Summer Olympics occur during presidential election years, I have to pick my viewing opportunities carefully. I won’t always have the time or patience to watch much water polo or beach volleyball, sports that involve a lot of buildup — dozens of preliminary matches — all leading up to a gold-medal match that I’ll probably forget to watch anyway.1 Instead, I’m mostly interested in sports such as swimming and track and field, which provide plenty of bang for the buck, with somebody (probably an American) winning a medal pretty much every other time you look.
Not everyone agrees with this philosophy, though. Track and field and swimming are indeed very popular, ranking as the top two sports for Olympics TV viewership, followed by gymnastics in third. But soccer ranks fourth. It awards just two gold medals, one each for the men’s and women’s champions, while sailing awards 10. And yet — even if people don’t care as much about Olympic soccer as they do the World Cup or the Champions League — soccer has 15 times the Olympics TV audience that sailing does.
So, what if Olympics medals were awarded in proportion to how much people actually cared about each sport, as measured by its TV viewership? To reiterate, I’m talking about TV viewership during the Olympics, specifically. Tennis (as in: Wimbledon) is presumably the more popular spectator sport under ordinary circumstances, but in 2012, people actually spent more time watching table tennis (as in: pingpong) than tennis at the Olympics.
The data I’m citing here comes from the IOC’s International Federations Report, which listed the total number of TV viewer hours in each sport during the 2012 London Olympics. People around the world spent a collective 202 million hours watching Olympics fencing in 2012, for example. The list of the most popular sports is less U.S.-centric than you might think: Badminton, not very popular in the United States, gets a lot of TV viewers worldwide.
There are just a couple of complications. First, some Olympic federations cover more than one sport, as people usually define them. FINA, for example, governs swimming, diving, water polo and synchronized swimming2, and the IOC’s report aggregated their TV viewership together. I used data on London Olympics ticket revenues as a proxy for the relative popularity of these sports, in order to split the TV audiences accordingly.3 Second, golf and rugby are new to the Olympics this year, so I estimated their TV viewership using regression analysis.4
Otherwise, the analysis is pretty straightforward. I calculated a medal multiplier for each sport, such that the value of medals is proportional to the amount of time people spent watching it. Gymnastics, for instance, represented about 4.5 percent of the medals awarded in 2012, but around 9 percent of the TV viewership. It therefore needs a medal multiplier of 2 to bring things into proportion.5
|SPORT||VIEWER HOURS (MILLIONS)||EVENTS||MEDAL MULTIPLIER|
|Track and field||2,300||47||1.0|
Team sports almost invariably wind up with large medal multipliers, including soccer (12.9), basketball (8.0) and even water polo (1.9). Swimming (0.9) and track and field (1.0) hold their own; they’re very popular, but also medal-rich, so there isn’t much need to adjust their numbers one way or the other. Gymnastics gets a boost, though, as does diving (1.9). But many of the more obscure individual sports, such as shooting (0.4), sailing (0.2) and taekwondo (0.2), have low multipliers.
How would these adjustments have affected the 2012 Olympic standings? Among other things, they’d have helped the United States, which already led the way with 46 gold and 103 overall medals in London. A lot of those medals came in team sports, such as basketball, volleyball and (women’s) soccer, which have high medal multipliers. Thus, Team USA’s adjusted medal count is 78 golds and 142 medals overall, towering over the competition.
China also gets a modest boost, thanks in part to its gymnastics and table tennis prowess, while Brazil — great at soccer and volleyball, not so good at the individual sports — gets a large one. The country that suffers the most is Great Britain, which used its home-nation advantage to rack up medals in some of the more obscure sports. Nations from Eastern Europe and Central Asia, which win lots of medals in relatively unpopular events such as weightlifting and wrestling, also suffer to some extent.
|ORIGINAL 2012 MEDAL COUNT||ADJUSTED FOR SPORT POPULARITY|
|Trinidad and Tobago||1||1||2||4||1||1||2||4|
We’ll check in on these numbers again at the end of the 2016 Rio games. They may even make inexplicably popular beach volleyball — medal multiplier 7.7 — worth your time to watch.