The Weigh to Victory

Imagine two people standing next to each other at a firing range. The man on the right, John Curling, has two bullets to fire. The man to his left, Peter Alpine, is using the identical rifle but has 30 bullets. After they’re done firing, their targets both show two bullseyes. If you were trying to determine the more valuable shooter, it would clearly be Mr. Curling. But if you were giving out one trophy per bullseye, they would be tied with two trophies apiece.

The Olympic medal table presents a similar problem. As numerous commentators have pointed out, the easiest way to win the most medals is by having exceptional athletes in the events that have the most disciplines, and therefore, hand out the most hardware. Speed skating is a classic example. Apolo Anton Ohno is the most decorated winter Olympian in American history not because he is more dominant at the Olympics in his sport than Seth Wescott is in his. It’s because Ohno competes in a sport with multiple distances, and therefore, multiple medals to be won.

If Seth Wescott wins his one and only event – snowboard cross – he has gone 1-for-1. And with only two disciplines (men’s and ladies’) in his sport, the scarcer the medal opportunity, the more valuable the medal is, comparatively speaking. If Ohno has four chances to place on the podium, and wins one, should Wescott’s and Ohno’s podium finishes be viewed the same way?

We wonderered: what if the events were equalized? The way the games are constructed gives a big advantage to countries that do well in sports with multiple events. The table below is about how countries would do if each sport was treated equally, with weighting compensating for number of medals available.

Table and methodology are below the jump.

Here’s Andreas’s methodology:

In each sport, I computed the total number of available medals for each country — three in each individual event (bobsled and doubles luge are considered individual events because countries can enter more than one team), and one for each team event (team events being defined as those in which a country can only enter one team, such as relays, hockey and curling, and therefore has only one chance of winning a medal). I then looked at the number of medals a country won in each sport and turned it into a percentage. This controls for the fact that certain sports have a much larger number of medals available. I then averaged the percentage figures (counting each figure equally) to achieve a weighted average — this treats each sport as if it made up 1/15th of the games (because it doesn’t seem right to count alpine skiing, with 10 individual events, for 15 times as much as curling, which has only two team events.) The team with the highest weighted percentage is the one that would have won the Games were there not a structural imbalance built into the sports and events contested.

As you can see above, it was Canada — by a hair — with the advantage, thanks to success in low-medal haul events like curling, hockey and bobsled. Here, our efficient friend Mr. Curling gets his proper due when lined up next to Mr. Alpine.

(If that last sentence sounded like a Jamie Campbell line, ’tis true, Ginger has infected your editor’s brain. Linger aus!)

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