Olympic Medal Inflation: Triumph Has Never Been Easier

Norway has already won 18 medals at the Sochi Olympics, one better than the nation’s medal haul from the very first Winter Games in 1924 in Chamonix, France. In terms of dominance, however, the modern-day feat can’t come close to Norway’s Winter Olympics debut. The 1924 games featured a grand total of 16 events, and after accounting for a tie for bronze, that meant only 49 medals in total. Norway took home 35 percent of the entire possible haul, truly a dominant showing. The other 32 medals were split among nine different countries.

Ninety years later and it’s a vastly different story, with no single country able to win a third of all medals. In the same way we have seen complaints in the education system about grade inflation, the Olympics faces its own version: medal inflation. There are many more medals to go around, more countries win them, and the domination of individual nations has scattered into an egalitarian distribution of winners. Not everybody is a winner—sorry, Jamaican bobsled team—but the expansion has served to massively broaden the pool of nations on the podium.

First, we can see that total medals awarded has skyrocketed in the last 30 years. There was a period of steady growth toward 100 followed by a period of stability, before the Winter Olympics rapidly pushed past 200. The 2014 games have 98 events with a total of 294 medals, and the total should easily exceed 300 next time around and, before long, 400. If this continued growth seems far-fetched, just remember there were only 138 medals awarded as recently as 1988 in Calgary—it took less than two decades to more than double that total.

The extra events certainly help TV broadcasters fill time and sell more ads. Not surprisingly, the rapid growth follows the commercially successful 1984 Los Angeles Summer Games, which were noteworthy for turning a profit through ingenious use of corporate sponsors. We can see in the data how corporate needs are served, with the increase in events serving to raise the amount of money flowing in and around the Olympics.

As a result of the additional events, the distribution of countries winning medals has become much broader. The narrow field of 10 medal-winning countries in 1924 gave way to 20 winners for the first time only in 1992. From there, steady growth has taken the ranks of the triumphant to 26 in the last two Olympics. The Sochi games still have a few days to go, and we’ve already seen 26 countries win a medal.

Another effect of the increased number of events and the broader distribution of countries is the average number of medals won per country. Originally, the average take-home per country was under five medals, but it now reaches 10 medals per nation.

What does this tell us? It’s all been a boon for broadcasters: more events and more medals mean more hours of television, more stories, more possible heroes. For athletes, however, winning a single medal is more diluted than ever and there’s now a lot more competition for that cereal-box endorsement with all the other medalists around.

And silly factoids like “Norway has won the most Winter Olympics medals ever” start to mean less and less because the last three decades of data don’t resemble the first 60 years.

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