Winter Olympic Medal Count

One thing that I’ve noticed here in Canada is that it seems that at every Olympics there is commentary about how Canada is underperforming regarding the medal count. It’s possible that it also happened or happens in the US and that I’ve forgotten or not noticed.

Four years ago before the last Winter Olympics I did a little study of the medal count of the previous Summer Olympics in order to see how both countries did when you look at the population per medals won and the athletes sent per medals won. It is easy to look at the straight medal count and say how different countries dominate. But how do the countries fare when you take these other factors into consideration. At that time there was talk in Canada that they were sending too many athletes. That is why for that study I looked into the number of athletes per medal won.

At the end of that little study I said I would do the same for the Winter Olympics. Well it took me four more years to get around to it. But this time what I did was take the total golds and medals for the past five Winter Olympics and prorated each year per the number of medal events that year. For instance in 1992 there were 57 medal events whereas there were 84 in 2006. So I gave the medals from 1992 48% (84/57) more importance to bring them up to par with those in 2006. That would put the medals won each year on equal ground and not give more importance to current years. I didn’t work out the ratio of athletes to medals this time since it takes more time than I could invest.

To begin, here are the average number of medals for each country over the past 5 Winter Olympics for the top 15 countries:
Germany – 13 golds – 35 medals
Norway – 11 golds – 29 medals
Russia – 11 golds – 25 medals
USA – 9 golds – 22 medals
Austria- 6 golds – 21 medals
Canada – 6 golds – 18 medals
Italy – 5 golds – 17 medals
Switzerland – 3 golds – 10 medals
France – 3 golds – 10 medals
Finland – 2 golds – 10 medals
Netherlands – 3 golds – 9 medals
China – 1 golds – 8 medals
South Korea – 4 golds – 7 medals
Sweden – 2 golds – 7 medals
Japan – 2 golds – 7 medals

The results for population per gold won include the 14 countries which won at least an average of one gold per Winter Olympics:
1 – Norway – 441 000
2 – Austria – 1 526 000
3 – Switzerland – 2 397 000
4 – Finland – 2 410 000
5 – Sweden – 4 158 000
6 – Canada – 5 897 000
13 – USA – 36 254 000
Average – 11 640 000

The results for population per medal won include the 125 countries which won at least an average of one medal per Winter Olypmics:
1 – Norway – 170 000
2 – Austria – 395 000
3 – Finland- 535 000
4 – Switzerland – 756 000
5 – Estonia – 1 071 000
7 – Canada – 1 903 000
20 – USA – 13 753 000
Average – 4 563 000 (not including China)

So what does this all say. Well regarding Canada, the country does quite well at the Olympics both in medals won and in medals per population. There has been much griping about a program here called “Own the Podium” where government money was spent to better prepare athletes in the hope of leading either the gold medal count or the overall medal count. While I don’t have a problem supporting the athletes in the interest of national pride, I think that looking at the numbers it may have been unrealistic to hope for/expect medal domination. It’s true that in any given year one of the top few countries could lead the medal count. In the 5 Winter Olympics studied, Germany (3), Norway, and Russia have lead the count at different Olympics. It was possible that it could have happened this time around, but calling for domination publicly could backfire in terms of national pride when the numbers fall short. Then people feel disappointed instead of happy for the athletes who succeeded. That’s why I’ve never liked the medal count and the competative commentary that surrounds it. The Olympics should about individual achievement.

In regards to the US and their relatively high population per medal count, I’d say there are a couple reasons for that. Only a half and possibly only a third of the population lives in climates and locales conducive to winter sports. The other is that for any given sport a country can only send their three best. A large country may have 10 athletes near medal level abilities, but can only send the top three. Those three may or may not have their best performance on that given day of competition. By no means is this a call for allowing more athletes from each country. If anything it seems there are quite a few good athletes who transfer to other less competitive countries. No, my point is just that these could be explanations why the US has a higher population to medal ratio.

I’ve always enjoyed doing these types of studies. They dig deeper than what’s on the surface (in this case the straight medal count). I’ve actually recently finished a look at playoff droughts for different sports to determine which loyal fan base deserves the next championship. I’ll probably unleash the results of that this spring.


~ by Frank on February 25, 2010.

5 Responses to “Winter Olympic Medal Count”

  1. This was a very informative and enjoyable read, thanks for posting. Cheers.

  2. I’ve heard that it’s really GDP, not population, that works well to model the medal count at the Olympics, since it models the amount of resources available. Every country will have talent as a proportion of population, but developing talent is costly.

  3. It’s great to come up with the average gold medal and medal for each countries in the last 5 Winter Olympics. However, i don’t think it is fair to just compare the gold medal achievement to the country’s population. How many gold medal should China win to be said as the best then? Probably all the gold in the Olympics can never suffice.

  4. That was interesting. Thanks for crunching those numbers, that would have made my head hurt.

  5. Thanks, Lucas.

    Plam: That’s interesting. I should probable do a little study on that to see how that pans out. Though for the winter olympics the colder countries are more likely to do well.

    Maxine: Yes, that’s kinda what I was saying about the US. At some point a population becomes too large to be valid for an analysis like this. When I did the Summer Olympics I dropped off countries below a certain population. It’s great if some place like Monaco gets two golds, but it’s more an anomally than something worthy of a study like this. You make a great point.

    Thanks, torn. I actually enjoy doing this kind a stuff. It’s my math and problem solving side that begs to do this.

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