MOST WATCHED: The TV audience for the men's ice hockey final between host Canada and the United States at the Vancouver Winter Olympics in February reached peak viewership of 22 million (QI HENG)
I was in Vancouver, Canada, as the 2010 Winter Olympic Games started, to witness successes and setbacks, smiles and sobs. The Games not only offered an arena for athletes from around the world to compete against each other but also showcased different cultures getting to understand each other through involvement in winter sports.
When the curtain of the 17-day Games fell on February 28, Organizing Committee charts showed the United States placed first in the overall medal count with 37 (nine gold, 15 silver and 13 bronze), followed by Germany, 30, and hosts Canada, 26. In the meantime, on most of China's leading websites, such as Sina.com and Sohu.com, Canada ranked first in the number of gold medals with 14. It is interesting to consider the difference between China and the West in presenting the medal tallies. Should they be listed by total medals or just golds? What is the difference?
Turning on its best-ever Winter Games performance in Vancouver, China took home five gold, two silver and four bronze medals. But the same performance ranked differently on two lists. In China's media, the country placed seventh in the gold tally, while on vancouver2010.com and the website of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), China ranked eight in the overall medals table. Compared to China, the gap for Russia was bigger: sixth in the medals overall and 11th in gold medals.
The gold-first ranking system was used by most of China's and world media such as the BBC; the total medal system was preferred by U.S. media such as Sports Illustrated and Canadian media including CTV Television Network, the country's largest privately owned network, also the official website for the Vancouver Olympics.
Some think the gold count is best, saying "surely a gold is worth 50 percent more than a silver, and the difference between a gold and silver should be greater than between a silver and bronze." This view is confirmed by award money in various countries. In the United States, for example, $13,374 was awarded for a gold medal, $8,173 for silver and $5,424 for a bronze.
Some think otherwise, saying a breakthrough by winning a bronze is much more valuable than a gold won in a traditionally strong event. Plus, medal numbers could reflect the overall conditions of the entire people of the nation involved.
The difference in rankings has its origins in the early days of the Olympics, when the IOC did not publish or recognize medal tables. This accords with its charter that prohibits it from producing an official ranking. There was no problem before 2008 as the country that led in total medals usually led in the gold count. But recently China and the United States have confused the picture, especially when the two countries topped gold and overall medal tallies respectively at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. At a news conference on August 24, 2008, IOC President Jacques Rogge confirmed the IOC did not have a preference for any particular ranking system. A demographics ranking system and weighted points system have also been suggested by different people and countries.
In China's media during the 2010 Winter Olympic Games, the most covered sports were figure skating, short-track speed skating and curling, events where Chinese athletes took four gold medals, one silver and one bronze.
Also, on China's national broadcaster CCTV, the number of viewers peaked during competitions in the events in which China had a chance to win a medal. Takes curling as an example. The female curling tournament alone attracted 370 million TV viewers.
But, consider the 58 snow events that account for 67.4 percent of all the Winter Olympic contests. They were scarcely taken notice of by the Chinese audience, who had to bone up on their rules through the Internet and TV programs.
Snow sports such as alpine and cross-country skiing, where China is less competitive, are as important to Winter Olympics as track and field and swimming to Summer Games. Athletes from German-speaking countries traditionally dominate alpine skiing to the extent that German is the sport's primary language. In Vancouver, Germany won six gold, five silver and two bronze medals in alpine skiing, but only two Chinese athletes qualified to compete in alpine skiing events.
In ice hockey, one of the most popular Winter Olympic sports, the Chinese women's team lost all its round robin games and the men's team did not even qualify for the Games. In Canada, where ice hockey is regarded as a national sport, obsession and even religion, the men's gold-medal game between the United States and the home team became the most-watched TV broadcast in Canadian history, with an average audience of 16.6 million and peak viewership estimated at 22 million people—or two thirds of Canada's population—who watched as Sidney Crosby scored in overtime for Canada to beat the United States 3-2.
Throughout the world, altogether 1.3 million people are regularly involved in ice hockey, with 500,000 in Canada alone. But in China, a country with a population of more than 1.3 billion, there are only 166 registered female players. The situation is even worse in curling. Despite the women team's bronze medal finish in this year's Winter Olympic Games, professional curlers in China do not even number 100.
Because of the lack of professional, semi-professional and amateur clubs for these sports in China, which are well developed in the United States, Canada and European countries, China has to send national teams overseas for training for several months every year.