Who'll Win the Winter Olympics? What the Medal Tables Won't Tell You

Olympic medal tables attract huge attention from the media, the public and the sporting authorities and yet, as measures of sporting achievement, they’re flawed in a number of crucial areas.
 The first, and perhaps most obvious, problem is the lack of consistency in calculating rankings using medals won. Medal tables rankings can be based on the number of gold medals won – with silver and bronze medals only coming into the equation when there the number of gold medals is tied. Alternatively, medal tables can also be based on the number of medals won with the ‘quality’ of the medal only being a factor in the event of a tie in the number of medals. (The system used varies from country to country and tends to be based on showing the local country in the best light.)
Neither of these systems is satisfactory. The former means that a country with just one gold medal is ranked ahead of a country with ten silver and ten bronze medals. The latter means that a country with eleven bronze medals is ranked ahead of a country with ten gold medals. Clearly differing values have to be attributed to the different medals if a meaningful ranking is to be produced – which is the approach adopted by the GreatestSportingNation.com (GSN).
However, on closer examination, there are number of other issues with using medal tables to rank sporting achievement. The first of these issues is that medal tables, by definition, only record top 3 finishes. This means that considerable sporting achievements, such as reaching the quarterfinal of a knock out event, or coming in fourth, receive no recognition. It could also, in theory, mean that a country with one bronze medal finished in front of a country with ten 4th places – hardly an accurate measurement of their relative sporting achievement.
GSN avoids these issues by awarding points for top 8 finishes as follows :
1st : 10 pts
2nd : 8 pts
3rd : 6 pts
4th : 5 pts
5th : 4 pts
6th : 3 pts
7th : 2 pts
8th : 1 pt
The second issue is that some sports are far more heavily represented in medals tables than others. For example, at the 2012 Vancouver Winter Olympics there will be two ice hockey gold – for the men’s and women’s team competitions. By contrast there will be 10 biathlon golds, 12 for cross country skiing and 12 for speed skating (with a further 8 for short track skating.) Clearly countries which focus on individual sports such as skating and cross country skiing will be at a great advantage compared to those which focus on team sports such as ice hockey.
GSN compensates for this by using a weighting system that means results in team sports (with five or more team members) are more valuable than those in individual sports. (Please note that this doesn’t mean that team sports are, overall, more valuable than individual sports. It just means that a single ice hockey gold – which is one out of the two awarded in that sport – is more valuable than a single speed skating gold – which is one out of 12 awarded in that sport.)
Finally, medal tables don’t reflect the fact that the media and the sporting public see some events as ‘blue riband’ events that are somehow more important than others. This might be the men’s downhill in the Winter Olympics or the 100m sprint in the Summer Olympics. Looking outside the Olympics, the football World Cup dwarfs other single sport competitions in terms of global media attention and audience. Much of this perception of ‘importance’ is based on factors which have no bearing on sporting achievement. Winning a gold medal in one sport versus a gold in another sport is not necessarily a greater sporting  achievement just because the first sport has a larger audience.
There is, however, one other objective factor that needs to be taken into account when assessing sporting  achievement – the level of participation in that sport. We believe that it is a greater sporting achievement to be no.1 in a sport that has millions of participants than it is to be no.1 in a sport that has a few thousand participants. GSN therefore uses a ‘participation weighting’ based on the number of nations taking part in the World Championships - including official qualifying tournaments - for the sport in question.
So there we have it. Medal tables are fine at telling you how many medals have been won by various countries. However, if you want know who ‘won’ the Winter Olympics, or how your country did, then you need to come to GreatestSportingNation.com for our unique Winter Olympic rankings.