With six days left until the closing ceremony of Rio Olympic Games, plenty of medals are still to be distributed between more than 200 nations and refugee representatives. As usual, the United States is currently dominating the rankings with a whopping total of 74 medals at the time of writing, with Great Britain and China following behind.
But are they really in the lead?
If you’re an American, there’s absolutely no doubt about it. But Australians and New Zealanders would have different feelings in the matter, says Professor Michael Platow of the ANU Research School of Psychology.
According to a paper Platow and colleagues published in 2014, what you judge to be a fair medal tally depends on which country you belong to - because it can totally change what success looks like.
“People play with the rankings to make their country look better,” he says.
The researchers surveyed American, Aussie and Kiwi university students on what they deemed to be the fairest way to evaluate country performance in the Olympics - should you take into account the total number of medals, medals per capita, or perhaps count the medals based on what sporting resources the country has?
“A lot of Americans didn’t understand the question. To them it was obvious, just count up the number of medals,” says Platow. “Of course Australians and Kiwis say the medal count should be looked at per capita. That’s because you can shift the rank orderings that way.
“You can see this happening in newspapers around the world. Sometimes they show the medal count by gold medals, sometimes by total medals, sometimes they mention the per capita change in the article.”
Now, this was actually a social psychology study on how people who belong to different groups use creative strategies to find a way to look better than the other group, and Olympic medals were simply used as an easy study subject.
However, it’s certainly food for thought in the current situation - and there’s even a handy online tool for us to bring some justice to the medal tally.
Medals Per Capita: Olympic Glory in Proportion is a simple website that lets you rank the Rio 2016 medal winners in several ways, whether it’s by total medals, or gold medals per capita, or even by GDP. During the Olympics, the site is updated once daily.
According to the ‘per capita’ rankings as of 15 August, US ranks much, much lower - at the 37th place, while China is even less impressive, clocking in at the 60th spot.
Meanwhile things are not too bad for Australia, putting us in the 10th spot with our 22 medals per nearly 24 million people. However, for New Zealand this means a much more exciting ranking - in the 2nd place. The top ‘per capita’ spot is taken by the tiny Caribbean nation of Grenada, whose Kirani James won a silver in the Men’s 400 metre sprint.
The website was created by computer scientist Craig Nevill-Manning, who is also… a proud Kiwi.
“My bias? I'm originally from New Zealand, which has consistently been in the top half-dozen or so countries for total medals and gold medals per capita, and in 1984 won the most golds per capita,” states the About section.
If you want to have a go at finding the most favourable way to present your country’s results, Medals per Capita has data for Olympic Game medal tallies going back all the way to Athens, 1896.
Just remember, what you think is fair probably depends on where you are from.