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Winter Olympics Medal Trends

The 2010 Winter Olympics are over and the USA came out on top with the highest medal count at 37. Germany was next at 30, followed by Canada at 26.

Lost in those numbers is any measure of difficulty. Gold medals are lumped together with Silver and Bronze. And we lose any indication of the overall challenge: more competitors mean more challenging games. For example, if there were only three countries competing, then coming in third place is no great distinction.

The overall number of medals is also a floating marker. This is because the number of games included in the Olympics has been increasing.

So I decided to plot a few pictures to have a better idea of what is happening.

The first is a shot of the number of games in competition. In the first Winter Games in 1924, there were only 16 sports. This fell by two in the next two meetings, but then gradually rose to a full 86 in the 2010 games.

Winter Olympics Number of Games by Year

The rate of increase was roughly the same, barring the interruption of World War II, up until about 1984, when the pace quickened. About 9 new medal-games were added each time. The addition of new games has slowed down lately: from 2006 until 2010, only 2 games were added. Still, if this pace continues, the 2022 meeting will host about 100 games.

The number of countries that participate in the games has also been increasing. The proxy for this is provided in the next picture, which shows the number of countries that won medals in each of the meetings (I don’t have the number of countries that did not win any medals).

Winter Olympics Participating Countries by Year

About the same rate of increase that we saw in the number of games is present in the number of countries winning medals. This shouldn’t be too surprising: the more chances of winning something, the more likely we’ll see more countries winning at least one medal.

There have only been six countries that have participated in all 21 Winter Olympics since 1924: Austria, Canada, Finland, Norway, Sweden, and the USA. Germany rates a special mention: it did not participate in 1924 or 1928, but has since then; although it did, at times, have a split personality.

The next picture shows how the old hands have performed through time. It shows the percent of medals won. For example, in 1924, Norway won 4 Gold, 7 Silver, and 6 Bronze, or 17 total. There were 48 medals awarded (to all countries) in that year, and Norway took 35% of them, clearly placing it on top: the next best country was Finland with about 22%.

Winter Olympics Percent medals won by countries by Year

The Norwegians have continued to do well through the years, coming out on top in many of them. Their performance, like the other countries shown, has been decreasing, but that is function of the increasing number of countries participating.

Canada has been doing better, gradually improving since 1980. Sweden is sinking, as is Finland. Austria can’t make up its mind. Germany is decreasing slightly (that flat line in the middle joins the old and new Germany). The USA is improving.

Still, that picture is confused by the increasing number of competitors. The next picture attempts to adjust for that by weighting the percent medals won by the number of countries that won at least one medal. For example, Norway’s 1924 35% when there were only 5 other countries in competition can be compared with Norway’s 2010 8% when there were 25 other countries winning medals.

Winter Olympics Index medals won by countries by Year

This changes the situation some. The USA and Canada now show more dramatic improvements. Norway is still holding it own, as is Germany (same problem of East-West missing years). But now Sweden’s and Finland’s demise does not appear imminent. And Austria looks to be improving.

If there is great, overwhelming, I-can’t-stand-not-knowing interest, I can link to plots for more countries. Just let me know.

16 thoughts on “Winter Olympics Medal Trends Leave a comment

  1. Have you considered normalizing for population (either the medal country, or the medal country as a % of world population at the time)?

    Also, not certain about this, but I would imaging that over the years there would be a larger increase in summer olympics than in winter olympics – everyone has a summer, but not everyone has a winter (i.e. snow)

    Lastly, it would be interesting to see medal counts compared to median or average daily income by country – that is, to what extent is sports/olympics participation tied to a rising standard of living?

    Thoughts?

  2. So, based on the current trend, I’m predicting utter Canadian dominance of the medal standings by about 2028 or so? 🙂

  3. How about comparing the events in which medals were won to the events of previous Olympics? The United States won 3 more medals than they did in 2002, but some of this year’s medals were won in events that weren’t around in 2002 (speedskating team pursuit, snowboardcross, et al).

  4. The waitress at the breakfast joint I frequent on Sunday’s is Australian. She was thrilled when I told her I’d watched while an Australian woman won a gold in the women’s ski jumpy-flip-over and land on snow covered pine boughs event.

  5. mike,

    That’s a good idea, and I last did it for the Summer Olympics. There, I found Jamaica was in the top spot, because they had won a lot of medals with a low population. If I have time, I’ll do the same for the Winter.

  6. The Soviets were a dominant player up until their collapse. The Russians were not significant medal winners. I don’t know if it would be fair to create a hybrid timeline Soviets / former Soviet republics.

    Similarly, in the ’48 – ’88 period, what was the combined East / West German take.

    Prior to the ’02 games an Economist was getting attention for his model of the medal count based on GDP and Climate. At previous meetings he had outguessed the prognosticators who used bottom up methods.

  7. JeffC..,

    Great idea. If I had the data complied, it’d be easy to do. But my data is only at the aggregate level. Have a source?

    Doug M,

    Also a good idea. But no matter what you’d come up with, people would grouse.

  8. I want to see a “snow-put” event, putting a snowball as far as possible, in the future. Throwing snowballs is fun, isn’t it?

    I know we would have won gold in men’s hockey if the game were played in, say, Detroit. So I suspect that the host country gets a boost in its medal counts. Ok, maybe I am too competitive. ^_^

  9. Am taking a break from working on a massive snowdrift threatening my back patio should Spring ever actually arrive in the frigid Northern Great Plains. Idea: Maybe a new event will materialize — snow shoveling — as many like me are getting one heckuva’ lot of practice this winter.

    Seriously, the delta between gold, silver and bronze when captured in milliseconds can be difficult to appreciate as expressed quantitatively on TV and can best be appreciated acoustically as at:

    http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2010/02/26/sports/olympics/20100226-olysymphony.html?ref=olympics

  10. The USSR results would be interesting. The relationship that may prove interesting is the ability to maintain excellence over a long term period exhibited by state sponsored and capitalist inspired countries. When a single State government loses interest or control its sports success declines dramatically. It takes far more supporting relationships to be severed in a capitalist country–it is more highly organized which should lead to stability.

  11. Actually Briggs, coming out on top isn’t determined by most medals. In the Olympics, as in life, the winner is whoever has the most gold when it is over. (IOC rules)

  12. I hate proxies, unless they are the only data available. I’ve taken the liberty of checking Wikipedia (‘the source of all knowledge!’ one of my daughters waggishly calls it) for the number of nations participating in each games. This is significantly more than the number of medal winners.

    As a kind of data-check, I also noted the number of events shown for each games. This was the same as your data for all but two, with a slight difference for 1972, and a major one for 1984 (your graph has 39, Wikipedia has 49).

    There is an eerily close correspondence between the number of events and number of countries from 1960 on.

    Here’s the data in case you want to use it, in the form of three sets:

    Year (1924, 1928, 1932, 1936, 1948, 1952, 1956, 1960, 1964, 1968, 1972, 1976, 1980, 1984, 1988, 1992, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010)

    # Countries (16, 25, 17, 28, 28, 30, 32, 30, 36, 37, 35, 37, 37, 49, 57, 64, 67, 72, 78, 82, 82)

    # Events (16, 14, 14, 17, 22, 22, 24, 27, 34, 35, 35, 37, 38, 49, 46, 57, 61, 72, 78, 84, 86)

  13. How about subdividing the data summaries by event types (skating, skiing, “racing” [e.g. speed skaters & skiers racing against a clock), artistic (e.g. ice dancing, snowboarding half pipe, etc.), etc.). Some countries may stand out as more competitive but less artistic, etc (for some reason, or just coincidence).

    Also, it would be interesting (to me at least) to consider the traditional/established sports separate from the newer ones. That might show some interesting trends — presumably certain countries would excel at the new ones, those that introduced it, while over time other countries caught up in proficiency.

    Then cull the “outliers” from the data — some country’s wins may be skewed by a single particular superstar or stars while other countries would demonstrate true team talent.

    Parse & analyze the data enough & you can probably uncover evidence of some sort of conspiracy “they” will name after you!

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