Published February 12, 2010
Projecting Olympic medal hauls is always tough—so many competitors, so many events—but it's even tougher in winter.
The Summer Games take place largely on predictable surfaces, in water, a rubberized track, a gym mat. The Winter Games, by contrast, are about slipping and sliding. The athletes are at the mercy of one patch of ice, one caught edge, one wipeout. Place a short-track speed skater on scalpel-thin blades speeding around a 111-meter track at 40 miles per hour within inches of three other competitors, and anything can happen.
Or take Lindsey Vonn, who coming into the Games looked dominant but whose arm injury in December, and even worse, her shin injury last week, may prevent her from competing at all. She takes practice runs Saturday.
Still, some factors can point to likely results: recent performances, the home-country or home-continent advantage, a familiarity with the terrain, a country's cultural affinity with certain sports, and its historical records at the Olympics. The Norwegians, as usual, are a virtual lock to win a bunch of medals in Nordic events, at which the country has always excelled.
This year's Wall Street Journal medals forecast took into account recent performances in international competitions and interviews with experts. Then, instead of anointing an absolute first-, second- and third-place finisher in each event, the forecast assigned probabilities to the top medal contenders, and a single probability to the rest of the field. This was the same formula used for the Beijing Games in 2008, a formula which nearly projected the total number of U.S. medals.
The Journal's analysis of the competition projects good fortune, though not supremacy, for Team USA, which should finish with 33 total medals, 10 of them gold (warning: three of those were assigned to the aforementioned Vonn). And make no mistake—that's really all that matters to Americans. For all the talk of lack of snow, the loss of big-time sponsors such as Home Depot and General Motors, a new CEO for the U.S. Olympic Committee and NBC's projected $250 million loss, the Games begin Friday and now it's all about the gold, silver and bronze.
General Electric's NBC Universal unit, which is paying $820 million to broadcast the Vancouver Olympics, needs Americans to win to maintain interest in the Games. When fans cut through all the camera shots of tears dropping down rosy cheeks during the national anthem, the potency of the USOC and its team of 215 athletes will be judged by what precious alloys they hang around their necks.
"The U.S. focus is a lot more on victory," said Michael Payne, the former chief marketing officer for the International Olympic Committee. "If Americans don't have someone on the podium, there is a much faster turnoff rate."
If the U.S. contingent hits that level, it would place the Americans second only to Team Canada, whose Olympic committee has spent the past seven years and $113 million trying to break a recent medal slump.
But the great debate entering the Vancouver Olympics centers on the size of Canada's home ice—or home snow—advantage. The Journal's analysis projects Canada winning a prodigious 37 medals, which would be a record for any country in the Winter Games. (Note that the IOC tends to add events each quadrennial; with 86 separate events, there are now 39% more medals available in Vancouver than there were in Lillehammer, Norway in 1994.)
The Canadians have been unapologetic about trying to exploit this advantage, including putting an end to a longstanding gentlemen's agreement with the U.S. teams that allowed American athletes additional access to train at the competition sites during the months preceding the Games. As a result, they may very well sweep the ski-cross, for example. It's an event where four skiers go head-to-head down a narrow slope and familiarity with the course is often a difference-maker.
Luciano Barra, an executive with the organizing committee for the 2006 Games in Turin and a noted Olympic prognosticator, said the home-field advantage is worth a 15-20% boost in medal performance.
Some forecastersprefer to focus on socio-economics and politics within countries more than on individual athletes. Cuba, for example, has a dictatorial government pushing sports hard in the summer. Scandinavian countries may be small, but they're affluent and their climate is ideal for training in winter events.
Dan Johnson, a Colorado College economics professor, ignores "random events" and focuses solely on a country's climate, population, political structure, per capita income and historical performance. "Patterns say athletes who win in the Winter Games come from certain kinds of countries. They're usually large, rich, cold countries."
Johnson's projections, which he first conducted in 2000, have never had an accuracy rate lower than 93% and have been as high as 96%. He projects 27 medals for Canada, including five golds, and 26 medals for the U.S., which will also finish with five golds. However, he warned that his model usually underestimates China's prowess because its growth has been so explosive. Also tricky: dealing with the break-up of the former Soviet Union, which makes historical conclusions perilous when considering Russia and the former Soviet republics .
Sports actuary John Dewan, owner of Baseball Info Solutions, helped the Journal tally the probabilities and ran 1,000 simulations to calculate the chances of a host of outcomes, like Canada winning the medal count. In those simulations, Canada tied for or won the most medals 772 times. The U.S. tied for or won the most medals 240 times. Germany, a 2010 dark horse that has won four out of the last five Winter medal counts, tied for or won the most medals 84 times.