More than Merely Counting Medals

Convention is unusual in that people can often practice it without realizing that they are doing so.  When that occurs, it becomes difficult to discern whether people are practicing the convention, or the convention is practicing them.

To illustrate: while answering the question, “How tall are you?” probably appears to be completely straightforward, the conventional part of this practice is that we have agreed to perform the crucial measurement perpendicular to the ground while we are “standing up”. And, I suppose I should mention that the measurement should be conducted on dry land, on a planet where gravity is approximately that of Earth; also that none of the people involved—the inquirer, the measurer, or the inquiree—should be traveling near the speed of light.  (I may have overlooked other aspects of this “convention”.)  If our practice conforms to this protocol, our measurement will—by convention—be the inquiree’s “height”.

Please notice that this convention might itself have practical implications.  For example, tall skinny guys might find themselves losing whatever advantage their “height” might have afforded them relative to “less heighted” [sic] weight lifters.

Another example will bring the discussion closer to the subject I intended the title to suggest.  Suppose that somehow fate presented you a choice among three bags, each of which held the same number—say, 100—identical  coins. The only apparent difference among the bags was the specific type of coin each bag held.  Specifically, suppose that one bag held all twenty dollar gold coins,  the second all Mercury-head (silver) dimes, and the third bag held all pennies (copper).  Which bag would you take?  I suspect that only a very small number of people would, without giving it even a first thought, “go for the dimes”.  I myself would certainly “go for the gold… [pieces]”—after all, on face value alone (viz by convention), the bag of gold coins is “worth”, by convention, the most  (and, by speculation, probably a lot more).  Of course, I have assumed here that no other conventions apply here.

But let me complicate your decision a bit, so that I can focus this essay more tightly on my subject.  What would you do if fate were then to offer you a second choice; either the silver dimes or the bronze—err, copper—pennies?  Most people would, again without even a first thought, choose the silver bag; after all, by convention, the silver bag is “worth” ten times as much as the copper bag.  But, if given opportunity, they would in even faster time, choose a second bag of gold coins with even less thought.

By now, the real purpose in writing this essay is clear: to challenge sports reporters from this country (and any other countries, if there are any) who have adopted the convention of declaring a leader in “medal count”, simply by “counting medals”; that is,

  • by ignoring the obviously different ways that athletes and countries go about placing (by convention) on different medals; and
  • not to mention that US reporters’ convention ignores the “common sense” (also convention) that my two examples brought out.

To their credit, many of those same reporters also noted that, for example, all of Canada were counting on Team Canada to win a gold medal in men’s hockey.  But, simply to “count medals” egregiously ignores the importance players on both sides of the “GOLD MEDAL” game ascribed to winning that game. And not without reason: the Government of Canada—Team Canada’s Government—had undertaken as a matter of national pride, if not national policy, its own “own the podium” program.

letcherWhether that program succeeded is, however, also a matter of convention.  If we agree to treat all medals as being of equal worth despite the two examples, “no” has to be the answer—but I’ll leave to someone else the task of telling the Canadian Hockey Team.  If we agree instead to order national teams by totaling gold medals, and breaking ties by totaling silver medals (or even silver plus bronze—less of a fall-off than gold to silver) then, the Canadians won.  A third convention might instead follow this second, but do so on a per-capita basis.  This convention would avoid rewarding large nations just for having large populations.  I don’t know who would have won—but it is clear that, with only 15% of the US population, Canada would clearly have finished far ahead of its rival to the South.  And THAT would surely have embarrassed the US.

My favorite way of counting medals, by the way, would begin with leaving national flags at home.  In my view, we’d all win from that.

Robert A. Letcher, PhD

Robert A. Letcher, Ph.D describes himself as “an academic with a disability instead of a portfolio, a writer, and a Qigong practitioner who tries to help people learn”.

Published by the LA Progressive on March 6, 2010
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About Robert Letcher

Robert A. Letcher, Ph.D. is a political economist who describes himself as "an academic without portfolio, writer, political activist, and Qigong practitioner who tries to help people learn".