Friday August 22, 2014

Olympic winner? Depends on who you ask

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View from the Cheap Seats is kind of an extension of the newsroom. Whenever our three regular reporters, Calvin Daniels, Thom Barker and Randy Brenzen are in the building together, it is frequently a site of heated debate. This week: What is the best criteria for determining which country wins the Olympic Games?

Size matters

Traditionally, at the end of the Olympics, they added up the medals and whichever country had the most was the winner. That doesn’t necessarily work, though, which is why the International Olympic Committee (IOC) does not officially rank participating countries.

Many media outlets, on the other hand, rank based on the number of gold medals turning to silvers and bronze to break ties.

To my mind there are myriad other factors that come into play, such as  population, wealth and number of athletes on a team. This is qualitatively intuitive. Of course certain countries tend to dominate because they have the greatest pool of people to draw from and put enormous amounts of resources into developing them. But how to quantify these factors?

Fortunately, I did not have to crunch the numbers myself. Over the years, alternative medal tables have been proposed. Topend Sports, an online resource about elite athletics, proposed a ranking based on medals per one million population after the 2008 Summer Games. Using gold medals, Jamaica came out on top with 2.16 golds per million. In overall number of medals, The Bahamas was clearly the winner with 6.54 medals per million.

That still doesn’t seem right. For example, Canada is a winter sports country. At Sochi, we have the third biggest team (221) behind the States (230) and Russia (226). Despite a population one-tenth the size of the U.S., we are just as well represented and we are kicking their butts. Of course, the Americans are much more focused on summer sports. I decided medals per team member weighted by medal colour seems the best way to go.

At least some experts agree. After the 2012 Summer Olympics, The Guardian invited four of the top statisticians in Britain to weigh in. They looked at population, GDP and team size and concluded: “A sharper linear relationship is evident after taking logarithms. Further analysis can fine-tune the index to capture as much as possible the effect of GDP and/or population on performance.”

The top teams, so far, are Germany, Canada, Norway, Netherlands, USA, Switzerland, Russia, China, France and Poland.

Adjusting for team size, the list becomes: Netherlands, Norway, Germany, Belarus, China, Slovenia, Poland, Canada, USA, Austria.

I’m not trying to rain on anybody’s parade, but statistically this method more accurately reflects countries relative performances. It does not unduly penalize large teams and it does not unduly elevate outlier performances by an individual on a small team.

Of course, you can do just about anything you want with statistics. Some people would also weight events, making medals in say, hockey and curling more valuable than say, snowboarding and ice dance.

Whatever way you look at it, however, we can all be proud of the way Canadian athletes are representing in Sochi.

- Thom Barker

Pride, not numbers

Which country tops the Olympics is always an interesting one.

You would think which country has led the way would be pretty straight forward, but it comes down to a fair amount of spin-doctoring when determining an Olympics winner.

There are those who point to the overall medal total. That way of looking at a medal count puts a bronze medal and a gold medal at pretty much the same level.

Others suggest the medal leader is the country hoarding the most gold medals.

I tend to lean to the second option, since gold medals are wins, everyone else has essentially lost.

Ultimately I am not sure how important overall medal counts are.

It is hard to suggest Canada, with a population of around 35 million should have as many elite athletes as Germany with 80 million people, Russia 145 million, or the United States with 315 million.

I really see the Olympics being much more about relishing each medal as it is captured.

Each medal, and in particular the golds, are moments of pride for a country.

Whether it was Canada reasserting its tenuous claim to being the world’s best in hockey capturing both the mens and women’s gold medal in the sport in Vancouver in 2010, or Alex Bilodeux becoming the first two-time gold medal winner in freestyle skiing history with a win in week one is Sochi, or Dara Howell capturing gold in the new slopestyle competition, it felt good to be Canadian in such moments.

And that is how it should be. The Olympics are about athletes excelling on an international stage, and for the people back home to share in the success.

For Canada, a country often too humble for its own good, having a chance to collectively feel national pride thanks to our Olympic athletes is a great thing.

There are those who question our government investing in Olympic athletes. I am not one of those.

While I see government waste in spending, the Canadian Senate as a major example, investing in our athletes is money well-spent because it is an investment in building national pride.

— Calvin Daniels

Not Canada

It is my opinion that Canada will not repeat as the nation with the most gold medals in the 2014 Olympics.

Sure, we might take home gold in men’s and women’s hockey as well as men’s and women’s curling. But that’s about it for our gold.

In all honesty the two countries that will continue to compete for both overall medal total and gold medal total will be Norway and Germany.

Both countries have legitimate gold medal favourites in many of the remaining events and have proven to be Winter Olympic powerhouses.

Canadian athletes, meanwhile, have represented our country well. There’s no doubt about that. Representing your country at the Olympics is always impressive.  However, many of our gold medal hopefuls simply fell flat when it mattered most (Patrick Chan, Charles Hamelin, etc.).

The Germans and Norwegians, meanwhile, have, for the most part, won gold when they were expected to and will most likely continue to do so.

So while our medal total at the moment is great, 16 medals is nothing to scoff at, one can’t help but wonder how many gold we should have had some of our athletes lived up to their potential. We won’t be able to catch the Germans and Norwegians, but it’ll be very entertaining for athletes and fans alike to watch those two Winter Olympic juggernauts battle for top spot overall.

— Randy Brenzen

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