Numbers can mislead. That’s the oldie-but-goodie lesson from this week’s Wall Street Journal article which reports that the international media can’t agree on “who’s winning the medals race?”

The reason is due to a divide between the U.S. and the rest of the world. The U.S. —actually its media, including The Wall Street Journal —ranks countries by all the medals a team wins.…The rest of the world ranks countries by golds.

In the current standings, China leads the gold count with 26, but the U.S. is ahead in totals with 45.

The rankings aren’t sanctioned by the International Olympic Committee, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t matter, the WSJ says, because some nations may cut funding to sports where they won’t win gold.

“Most of the world wants it as gold, and that’s how we do it,” says Paul Radford, global sports editor of Britain’s Reuters wire service. As for the Associated Press in New York, it “has always aggregated it by total medals for as long as we can remember,” said its sports-statistics editor Paul Montella. For non-U.S. customers, however, AP provides the gold-first table.

It’s unclear whether the U.S. approach stems from a more inclusive “every medalist is a winner” philosophy, or if it is an attempt to put our athletes on top via some number crunching, but what’s telling, perhaps, is that Wikipedia, that great repository of all human knowledge, chose to order their tables in the international, gold first, style.


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Katia Bachko is on staff at The New Yorker.