Olympic Number Abuse

While the Olympics don’t have a national “winner,” per se, based on media coverage of the recently-concluded 2010 Winter Games, you’d think that the United States was the top dog in Vancouver with its record setting 37 medals. But that’s just nonsense: Canada “won” the Winter Olympics because it earned more gold medals than any other nation: 14, compared to our nine. That’s the way it is in every other sporting event that matters. For instance, who would you consider to the greater football franchise: San Francisco with five Super Bowl titles and no defeats (for a total of five medals), or Denver, with two super Bowl victories and four losses (for six total medals)? Clearly the 49ers are the “winners” between those two scenarios. It’s the victories that count and resonate, not the first and second runners-up. So I applaud all of our athletes, medalists and non-medalists alike, and I equally applaud our neighbors to the North for winning on their own court. Well played, eh.

As the Games were winding down, Marcia wondered aloud why we earned so many medals this year, forgetting for a moment the rule she’d coined regarding the posing of hypothetical questions to me: “Be careful what you ask for, because he just might make a spreadsheet.” Which I did. And it produced some interesting results. I was pretty sure that our large medal haul was a function of an ever-larger number of events, many of them the kinds of flashy showboat sports at which we tend to excel (Snowboarding, freestyle skiing, ice dancing, etc.) While I can’t attribute it specifically to those sports, I can certainly note that our 37 medals were among a total of 258 awarded this year. In the first Winter Olympics in 1924, a mere 49 medals were awarded (the numbers don’t necessarily add up to multiples of three due to ties). The total medal count has more than doubled since the Lake Placid Olympics in 1980, in which only 115 medals were doled out.

Given this rampant growth in the number of medals awarded, making year-to-year comparisons of actual numbers of medals won is meaningless. What is worth considering, however, is the percentage of medals won by the leading medal winning nation, since that allows meaningful longitudinal comparisons over time. So at Vancouver, our 37 medals constituted 14.3% of the 258 total medals awarded, which is actually the fifth worst performance by the top medal winner in Winter Olympic history. The three highest percentages of total medals won by a single nation are all held by Norway: 36.6% in 1928, 34.7% in 1924, and 29.4% in 1936. The United States does hold the fourth spot, however, for our 28.6% of the total medals won in 1932, also at Lake Placid. The lowest ever percentage of medals won by the leading medal collecting team was 11.5% for Germany, four years ago.

Our 14.3% score this year isn’t even our best score when we compare ourselves to ourselves over time; it was only our fifth best performance. As noted above, we pulled in 28.6% of the total medals as the home-team in 1932, and also raked in 16.4% in 1952 (Oslo), 14.6% in 1928 (St. Moritz), and 14.5% in 2002 (Salt Lake City). So all told, in terms of total medal counts, while the media crows about the magic number of 37, in relative terms over time, this wasn’t a spectacular performance for us when it came to mounting the medals podium.

But, as noted at the opening of this article, I don’t really think that total medal count is meaningful, since the gold medals are the only ones that constitute victory. What happens if we run this same sort of analysis just based on gold medals? Let’s go back to the spreadsheet.

We actually fare better in this department, tied with Norway for first place, when we won 42.9% of the golds in 1932, and the Norwegians won the same percentage in 1928. Norway and the Soviet Union hold all of the other top ten spots. The worst leading gold medal winning team was, again, Germany in 2006, with a mere 13.1% of the total gold medals offered. This year’s Canadian performance was the third worst for a gold medal leading team, with the home team taking away 16.3% of the total gold medals awarded.

The United States won 10.5% of the gold medals awarded this year (nine of 86), which was our ninth best performance in 21 Winter Olympic games. A pretty middle of the road performance. Our worst ever gold medal performances were in 1964 and 1968, when we won but a single gold medal in each year, for a dismal 2.9% victory rate.

The bottom line of all of this? That numbers must be considered in context to be meaningful, and when placed in proper perspective, our 37 medals this year reflects only a slightly better than average year for U.S. Winter Olympians. So quit the vicarious crowing and chest-thumping, Sportswriters, and give credit where credit is due, letting the Canadians enjoy the next four years as the real reigning winners of this year’s games, and appreciating the fact that the ability of even major sports powers to dominate the Winter Olympics seems to be waning, which is a good thing, since everybody loves to see the Liechtensteins of the world do their Cinderella dances every now and again.

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