It's as inevitable as the outcome when Eric Murray and Hamish Bond are on the startline - as soon as New Zealand start collecting medals at the Olympics, the trusty per-capita table is trotted out to enhance our standing.

Fair enough, too. We're at the bottom of the world, we're small, we focus largely on sports for which success, until very recently, never equated to gold. We need a bit of a boost to compete against the behemoths of the medal charts.

But maybe we're thinking about this wrong. Maybe, instead of artificially inflating our Olympic effort based on population, it would be fairer to judge ourselves using a more relevant measure.

Maybe, rather than focus on what temporarily tickles the fancy of our four million, all essentially aiming for a place near per-capita kings Jamaica, we should consider what interests the other seven billion.


That's what data journalism site FiveThirtyEight attempted this week, placing a relative weight on the value of each medal by assessing worldwide television figures from the London Olympics.

And, unfortunately for us, it's a lot less flattering than the per capita table. Which, in turn, begs some related questions: what's the merit for a medal in New Zealand? Have we achieved the right balance in funding specific sports? Is it wise to shoot for sure things or expand our horizons through long shots?

First, the data. In London, New Zealand finished 15th on the medal table, winning six golds among 13 medals. When judging by population, we were fourth overall.

But with our best moments coming in fringe sports like rowing, sailing and canoeing, New Zealand suffers under the FiveThirtyEight model. When including the global popularity of individual sports, our weighted result was two golds in five total medals, counting for 25th on the adjusted table.

The world is a big place and that's still meritorious. But rather than looking at population and exclaiming we punch above our weight, we should probably assess popularity and admit we do so mainly in minor sports.

Which, again, is fine - rising sea levels means the world needs sailors. But should it be factored into Sport New Zealand's high-performance funding, when current evidence indicates that is far from the case?

According to HPSNZ, the $175 million invested by the taxpayer across the Olympic cycle was targeted at three objectives: leading to international prestige for the nation, inspiring the people, and creating an increase in participation.

For the first aim, it would be a bit of a stretch to suggest our sailors or equestrians, as successful as they are, bring prestige to the nation when they stand atop the dais. Call it the tree-falling-in-a-forest principle.

The second is in no doubt: the Olympics engender a level of public interest and inspiration akin to the greatest of All Blacks triumphs, perhaps even surpassing those highs given, in Rio, the other 50 per cent of the population are also represented on the playing field.

And the third - which is absolutely the most important - is equally questionable, considering the access to sports like rowing for many middle- and lower-class families. How many kids see Bond and Murray draped in our flag and then have the requisite facilities to follow in their footsteps?

When HPSNZ assumed their annual role as benevolent benefactor before 2016, rowing, cycling and yachting were the most blessed. But while those sports offer a swag of medals, they're also inhibited by a scarcity of global spectators and an insufficiency of opportunities for many in the next generation.

But they do, at least, help with the per-capita count.