Monday, 24 February 2014


I've written before about Olympic medal tables, and one of the best things about the Winter Olympics is that they are so balanced, especially in light of the event-inflation (35 to 98 medal events from 1980 to 2014) which helps some of the less winter-centric sports nations. So it's interesting to see how various nations report the overall medals, which, remember, is never an official IOC statistic--the Olympic Committee says it would encourage nationalism, something the raising of flags and playing of anthems, or indeed the grouping of athletes by national teams of course doesn't do.

Russia 'won' the games by any measure, and in fact, IOC president Thomas Bach was quite candid in his closing speech, attributing part of the 'success' of the Games to the success of the host nation's team. Just as happened in London 2012, the triumphs of the host nation--a feat repeated regularly at Olympic Games--helped get that nation's viewers wrapped up in the competition, and the 'feel-good' factor pushed many wider issues, including those of costs of the games, financial needs elsewhere, persecution of gays, and growing crisis in Ukraine, out of sight and mind.

As well as making everyone forget the horror stories filling the world's press before the games started about hotels, transport, communications and the like, which as I pointed out at the time are also de rigeur for a bored, hyper-critical, and often unfamiliar press corps to the build up of an Olympics.

So Russia, to Bach's, Putin's, and millions of Russians' delight, 'won' the medals table. They won it no matter how you stacked it. And how you stack it is important.

In 2012, the British press inevitably ranked the table by gold medals--putting team GB & NI in third place, ahead of Russia. Here's the breakdown of the top five nations in order of golds: USA 46 China 38 GB&NI 29 Russia 24 Germany/France 11.

But if you saw a Russian paper, you might have seen the table listed by total medals, or by a simple points system; the most common being 3 for a gold, 2 for a silver, 1 for a bronze. Here's the top five nations again, listed by points (medals in parenthesis). USA (46-29-29) 225 China (38-27-23) 191 Russia (24-26-32) 156 GB&NI (29-17-19) 140 Germany (11-19-14) 85. If you weight the gold and silvers higher, using a 5-3-1 system, Russia still tops GB&NI 230-215.

Obviously, a points system favours bigger nations, with more depth of talent. There are so many anomalies already: team sports like basketball or ice hockey which produce only a single medal for the top three, sports like swimming whose gradations encourage multiple medalists, sports that have tight limits for each country's entrants and those that don't, and many many more. But if you're talking about who 'won' an Olympics, surely you need to consider all the medals? Why not consider 4th place? Or 4th through 10th?

The thing that jumps out at the 2012 games is the distance between first and second, between second and third/fourth, and between fourth and everyone else. But when you look at the Winter Games, stacked with more esoteric sports fiercely dependent on access to facilities (like mountains, snow and ice), the picture is wonderfully balanced.

Here's the gold medal table: Russia 13, Norway 11, Canada 10, USA 9, Netherlands/Germany 8, Belarus 5, Austria/France/Poland 4.

But if you're in the USA, you're more likely to see a total medals table, which looks like this: Russia 33, USA 28, Norway 26, Canada 25, Netherlands 24, Germany 19.

And if you're in Canada, I defy you to find a paper listing the medals in anything other than a points format, in which the Russians run away with the title, but Canada comes second by a nose over the arch-enemy USA. Here's how it looks in 3-2-1: Russia (13-11-9) 70 Canada (10-10-5) 55 USA (9-7-12) 53 Norway (4-5-10) 48 Netherlands (8-7-9) 24

It doesn't really matter, though, because the Olympics is all about encouraging us to get beyond national chauvinism and compete for the sake of competition, right? And if you believe that, I've got copies of the protest letters over the years about things like seams in the lycra bondage costumes speedskaters wear.

On the topic of rising above chauvinsim, recall the wonderful Dutch speedskating coach Jillert Anema (he ought to have his own sports talk show in America, Sports Anema) who accused the USA of 'failing' at the Winter Olympics because they concentrate only on their own sports which the rest of the world doesn't play. It appeared that Anema's definition of failing was 'failing at speedskating' not least because of the 24 Dutch medals, 23 came in speedskating, which has a rather limited reach in most of the world without specialist speedskating rinks, in other words, most of the world. That doesn't say much for the breadth of Dutch winter sports success.

Remember too that speedskating success is not unknown in the US (Eric Heiden, Bonnie Blair, Shanti Davis etc) though it is concentrated on one track in West Allis, Wisconsin. And Jillert was also wrong when he said the US wasn't ranked in the top 30 in the world in football (soccer), which is the (only?) other big Dutch sport (apart from korfball and fierljeppen). The US is ranked 13th in the world. Holland is ranked 10th. And we've won exactly the same number of World Cups as the Dutch.

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