In the spirit of the recently concluded Olympics, let’s rekindle the great Olympic rivalry between the American and the Soviets. Spurred on by a fun piece in Foreign Policy, the general count has the Soviet Union with 163 medals (adjusted for disqualifications) and the United States with their 104 medals. That count gives the competition to the Soviets in a runaway victory but it seems to be a little high seeing as how the only time the Soviet Union ever won so many medals was in 1980 when the United States boycotted the Olympics and the Soviets won 195 medals.
Here’s the problem with doing strict medal addition: there would have been a whole bunch of athletes that wouldn’t have been there in the first place. For instance:
- They would automatically lose one medal from rhythmic gymnastics where Russia got gold and Belarus got silver because they can’t send two teams.
- The former Soviet states sent 43 weightlifters, or 33 more than the ten lifters a country is allowed. They would have had to have left some of the 18 medalists at home.
- They would automatically lose six medals from men’s boxing and two from women’s boxing simply because each country is only allowed one boxer per event.
- They would lose four medals from the Canoe Slalom where they would have only been allowed to enter one boat per event.
I feel comfortable saying that there are a decent number of gold medalists that could have been passed over; just because an athlete wins a gold medal doesn’t mean that they were considered the best chance to do so when the national team was put together/were able to win qualifying tournaments. For example, a quick perusal of weightlifting shows that three of the five gold medals won by former Soviet states were won by athletes that finished behind other athletes from former Soviet states at the 2011 World Weightlifting Championship. In Judo, at least two of Russia’s gold medalists finished behind other athletes from former Soviet states at the 2011 Judo World Championship. There’s no guarantee that any of these athletes would have made the national team.
As for team sports, the argument is that taking all the best players from the various national teams would undoubtedly make the Soviet national team better. However, I’d like to point out the 2004 US men’s basketball team; just because you have a team comprised of highly skilled players doesn’t mean the team will be good. Further more, changing the team can sometimes force a change in strategy that isn’t always for the best. For instance, if you added Jonas Valanciunas (from Lithuania) to the Russian men’s basketball team, it could have forced a change in their style of play (less driving to the basket and more half-court offense run through the post). I’m not saying that they couldn’t have still won the bronze medal, but I don’t think that it would be a lock either.
Consequently, the Soviet Union loses 38 medals simply due to qualification rules, lowering their overall count from 163 to 125. Now it’s impossible to know which countries would pick up various numbers these 38 medals, but I think it’s a safe bet to think that America would pick up a decent number of these medals, especially since nearly 25 of them would come from wrestling and boxing events where there is a better chance to actually pick up a medal (since four medals are awarded in most, if not all, of the “fighting” events).
 The 163 medals comes from adding up the medal counts of the former Soviet states:Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Lithuania, Uzbekistan, Armenia, Latvia, Estonia, Moldova, and Tajikistan.
 A full list:
- 4 medals lost in canoe events
- 6 medals lost in men’s boxing
- 2 medals lost in women’s boxing
- 1 medal lost in gymnastics
- 1 medal lost in men’s weightlifting
- 7 medals lost in women’s weightlifting
- 1 medal lost in women’s wrestling
- 15 medals lost in men’s wrestling
- 1 medal lost in men’s judo
Cross-posted at Blogging at the Buzzer.