Which country won the Sochi Olympics? It seems like a relatively simple question, but while these Olympics were wrapping up, I fell down a rabbithole of how complicated it becomes when you start to think about it.
For a while there, using the gold medal count and the total medal count came out with different winners, and I got obsessed with all the ways you can manipulate the medal counts to try and pick a winner. It’s not just trying to balance accurately between valuing only golds to the exclusion of other medals and valuing all medals equally when clearly gold should mean more. There are weighted counts for that, although you can argue about how much to weight.
It’s also accounting for factors that give certain countries an outsized advantage. Size and wealth, for one example – bigger countries have a bigger pool in which to find athletes, wealthier countries have more resources with which to nurture and train them. Climate and terrain, for another – in cold countries more people grow up with winter sports, in mountainous ones people are more likely to ski.
Or what about measuring how well countries did for how well they should have been able to do? Medals per events entered, maybe, or medals earned per events in which athletes finished among the top few.
I ended up writing an article about this. Well, sort of about this. It was also sort of about silly and creative ways to measure the medal counts, because, you know.
But, amazingly, by the time the Games actually ended, the result was far less ambiguous. Russia was on top of the gold medal count, the total medal count and the weighted medal account. Pretty much the obvious winner by any straightforward accounting.
I set up this infographic in advance, thinking that I could fill it in on the last day for an interesting look at how the different methods skew results differently. It didn’t work out that way.
(Top 6 finishes from BPodium.com, GDP per medal from medalspercapita.com)
After all the energy spent thinking about how to pick a winner from among varying possible methods, my brain literally couldn’t comprehend the fact that in only a few short days Russia had sprung to the top by them all.
I knew host countries normally field larger teams and push harder for medals at their own Olympics. But Russia’s achievement seemed unusual. After all, China didn’t even win the total medal count at Beijing, and this is a country that went to surprising lengths to make sure its Olympics were perfect. So I got curious about whether Russia had pulled off something incredible (or suspicious even?) by getting these results.
After crunching the numbers I was shocked to find that, in fact, Russia’s achievement was relatively bland compared to what other countries have pulled off when they hosted.
This graph compares a country’s performance in its hosting year to the average of all its non-hosting years of the same season (winter or summer) – that is, how well did the country do that year compared to how well it usually does? Check out Japan’s improvement on gold medal count (hint: you won’t see it at first, that’s how high it is).
(I’m not going to lie, Excel was giving me major problems when I was manipulating this data. So anyone who finds problems with these numbers, please let me know.)
The bottom line is that, while we don’t have an awesome way to decide who won the Olympics on a fair medal count with handicaps taken into account, we can definitely say that Russia kicked butt at its own Olympic Games. But only slightly more butt than it normally kicks at a winter Olympics.
And now I can crawl out of this rabbithole and get back to my normal life of not obsessing about medal counts.