Gold, Silver, and Bronze for Olympic Medals Tables

The Olympics. For most people, it’s an exciting athletic tournament to see who’s Faster, Higher, Stronger. For nerds like me it’s a chance to look at data tables. I’m talkin’ medals count tables. They’re everywhere.

You’re probably wondering, “How different could they be?” Put a list of countries on the left and medal types and totals on right and you’re done. But there are a few standouts.

I looked at tables from 8 Olympic broadcasters. (Note: I took screenshots on the morning of August 8, 2016):

I’m going to be cutesy and have an “event” to determine which country has the best visualisation.

Before I get into that, let me explain the event. I think Olympic medals tables have two broad categories of uses:

  1. Summary. “I have literally two seconds. Just give me enough to get through the elevator small-talk on my way to the office.”
  2. Exploration. “I want to become a world expert on Olympic medal counts. Give me all the data you’ve got.”

Any visualisation’s effectiveness depends on what it’s being used for. If I want something that summarises data, clarity is paramount. If I want something I can use to explore data, I still need clarity, but I also need much more: ease of discovery, organisation, and possibly interactivity.

To keep things simple, I’m going to focus on summary tables. If people can get through this article without falling asleep, I’ll write follow-up post that looks at exploration tables.

The gold goes to…

Brazil. (Brazil)Why does this win the gold medal? Two reasons. First, it’s easy to look up and compare values. The numbers are in a grid and I can easily compare values by country or by medal type.

Second, this table has appropriate visual weight. The important elements — country names, medal totals, and the home country — are in bold and there’s little clutter to distract me from the data. In fact, the only non-data element is the series of light grey lines to subtly separate rows from one another.

The silver goes to…

Canada. (Canada)

Canada is similar to Brazil. Why is it second then? Its use of visual weight only okay. Take a look at Canada’s table, then Brazil’s. Doesn’t Canada’s seem heavier?

The Canadian table uses alternating white and grey backgrounds to separate rows. This practice prompts our brains to see rows (countries) as belonging to the same group. But that’s not true for columns (medal types). Look at both tables again, but try to get a sense of how well each country is doing in terms of silver medals.

I’ll bet it was easier to do with the Brazilian table. In this case, with so few rows and columns, I don’t think the alternating white and grey is necessary. It doesn’t make it that much easier to read the table by row, and it actually makes it harder to read the table by column.

Update: I just looked at Canada’s table on my phone. The heaviness of the grey background is less pronounced on mobile, but still noticeable.

The bronze goes to…


nhk (Japan)

Japan’s table has similar issues to Canada’s, with alternating white and grey backgrounds. Beyond that, Japan’s table uses a lot of white space — too much, in fact.

Our brains consider things close to one another to be part of the same group (this is the Gestalt proximity principle). The columns in this table are far apart enough that I don’t get the benefit of that effect, and I have to rely on white-grey backgrounds to signal that rows are grouped, which isn’t as effective. As a result, it’s harder to read the table.

Bringing up the rear, in last place…

Israel. (Israel)

It’s not even a table! Instead, this visualisation is separated into four sections — one for each of the top 3 countries and the broadcaster’s home country, Israel. Each of these sections has two sub-sections. First, we have the country section, with the country ranking, flag, and name. Second, below that, we have the medals section showing the medal counts for each country.

The only obvious takeaway here is the country ranking, and even that is dominated by flags, which depends on people knowing what flag belongs to which country. What if the top three countries were Russia, France, and the Netherlands?

The medals section has its own faults. First, it’s not organised in a way that’s conducive to comparison. Try to focus just on each country’s bronze medals. It doesn’t take long, but compared to the Brazilian table, it takes forever. Second, we don’t even see the totals. To get that, we have to perform some quick arithmetic (or go to Globo Esporte).

In the end, though, who cares?

Probably no one. The difference in time between analysing Brazil’s table and Israel’s table is tiny and I’ll be the first to admit I’m being pedantic. But, if you’re going to do something, you might as well do it properly. Part of the Olympics is about being the best. Why not extend that attitude to data tables, too?


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