The Olympics do more than peddle out the best athletes from around the world to perform Herculean feats. They also bring out the best in designers. Case in point? Each year, data visualizations come from all corners to synthesize, summarize, and clarify different aspects of the Olympic games.
For data journalists, the Olympics—essentially three weeks of facts, figures, and visuals that everyone cares about at once—present countless opportunities to show off their skills. The 2016 Games were no exception. So while you were busy watching Simon Biles stick the vault and Usain Bolt sprint across the finish line, we were judging the strength of the graphic output surrounding the Games. Below, our picks for the best Olympic graphics.
At the Guardian, the interactive team has been hard at work creating what is basically an incredibly comprehensive replay of the games, through the achievements of top athletes. This is where you go to relive the last three weeks. The interactive pages don't just summarize, they take you through leg by leg how an athlete or team of athletes won gold, using a mix of charts and photographs. Take U.S. swimmer Katie Ledecky, who won four gold medals and broke her own world record in the 400-meter freestyle. The graphic tracks the race course through an interactive graphic, compares Ledecky to past swimmers, and shows a series of photos that put her four bodies ahead of the other swimmers for the entire race.
The Guardian's thorough treatment of athletes and their gold medal wins makes for a comprehensive overview of the games as a whole.
Silver goes to Google Trends, which carried on its legacy of putting the incredible amount of Google search results at its fingertips to insightful use with Alternate Medal Table. Google's doesn't so much summarize the Games as it does synthesize information about individual countries to put winning the Games into broader context.
Countries are ordered according to their official ranks, but you can click assorted categories to rearrange the ranks based on factors such as population, GDP, and Olympic-related searches. The idea behind the graphic, Google data journalist Simon Rogers explains on his blog, is to explore how Olympic results would differ if every country had the same amount of resources. It sets out to answers questions like, "what could Jamaican athletes achieve if they had the financial resources of the United States?" or "what if caring a lot about the Olympics" — as represented in Google searches — "was how we determined the winner?" The graphic offers an alternative perspective on the Games, highlighting the fact that talent and ability aren't the only things that determine winners—social and economic factors are at play as well.
I don't want to point fingers, but if there was a data journalism team doping this Olympics, it was definitely the New York Times. They were consistently putting out some of the best data visualizations of the Games, from in-depth looks at individual athletes to sweeping overviews of the Olympics' history. Before the Games began, they put out fantastic primers for athletes, like this one of U.S. gymnast Simone Biles. It combines video, interactive graphics, and text into a scrollable narrative of the athlete's background and abilities. They also produced data-packed heat maps that trace each country's medal count since the first modern Olympics in 1896, breaking it down by sport. And in this interactive, Usain Bolt's greatness is measured against 120 years of Olympic runners. (Spoiler: He comes out ahead.)
In short, the Times dominated in every medium—video, interactive, illustration, static chart. But the gold medal graphic, in my opinion, takes a page from Nicholas Felton's book with a series that shows some of the most memorable moments of the Games through single-frame, step-by-step sequences. Created with a combination of high-speed cameras and exposure-stacking techniques, the composite photos slow down the defining, split-second, make-or-break moments into stunning visual narratives. Plus, it speaks to the power of the photo visualization, which is just beginning to hit its stride as a compelling way to organize and display data.
I'll leave you here with a couple of bonus graphics that are more about beauty than information. One is a lovely animation created by Henrique Barone, Rafael Mayani, and Conor Whelan and found on Behance. It features Athens-level athletes gracefully going through the movements of a number of sports: hurdles, javelin, discus, long jump. The other is a charming graphic from the Washington Post that presents the Olympics through a number of measurements—balls, equipment, courts, fields, and arenas.
In summary, we all watched the same Olympics, but the power of data visualization is to bring about new, unexpected perspectives. Or, in the words of Ryan Lochte, "It's how you want to, how you want to . . . make it look like."