Four years ago I wrote an article about the different ways to count Olympic medals. One of the issues I wanted to raise was that in individual sports (like Biathlon or Speed Skating) there are multiple chances for a single athlete to medal but in team sports (like Hockey and Curling) there is only a single chance for multiple athletes to medal. This disparity is unfortunate because although we develop individual and team sport athletes equally we do not count all the team sport medalists in the ‘official’ medal count.
Sochi’s official medal count places Canada either third or fourth depending on whether we count gold medals (third) or total medals (fourth). Either count places Russia first. The final medal standings look like this:
Russia – 13G 11S 9B – 33 total
Norway – 11G 5S 10B – 26 total
Canada – 10G 10S 5B – 25 total
USA – 9G 7S 12B – 28 total
Netherlands - 8G 7S 9B – 24 total
But what if we counted the actual number of medals that went home with athletes? If we counted team sport medalists as equal to individual sport medalists?
Canada – 63G 22S 5B – 90 total
Russia – 33G 22S 13B – 68 total
USA – 10G 31S 24B – 65 total
Sweden – 8G 35S 12B – 55 total
Norway – 18G 5S 13B – 36 total
Under the revised standings Canada is far in front in both total medals (by 22) and gold medals (by 30). In fact, if we discount the team figure skating event, Canada swept the available team sport medals by winning gold in men’s and women’s curling and in men’s and women’s hockey.
What compelling reasons are there to support the true value of a team sport medal? The Team Sport Coalition regularly defends the value of team sports and recently applauded the federal government’s announcement renewing a $6 million funding commitment to targeting team sports.
Canada can pour funding into team sports but team sport athletes can only acquire one possible medal. Supporting an individual sport athlete – who has multiple chances to medal – would be much less costly and possibly more lucrative. Ireen Wust, from the Netherlands, entered five Long Track Speed Skating events and finished with two golds and three silvers. Viktor Ahn, participating in four Short Track Speed Skating events for Russia, won three golds and a silver. Twenty-five Canadian hockey players won a single gold for Canada.
Some countries may focus their funding on a particular sport, in which multiple medals are available, in order to maximize their medal haul. In Women’s Cross Country, Norway acquired four gold medals and 9 of the 24 available medals. Germany swept the Luge events winning all four gold medals plus an additional silver. In Long Track Speed Skating, the Netherlands won 8 of 12 gold medals and 23 of the 36 available medals to be won. Without Long Track Speed Skating, the Netherlands would have only won a single medal in Sochi (a bronze… in Short Track) yet they finished fifth in the medal count standings.
The disparity between individual sport and team sport medals is not new and Canada’s success in winter team sports typically puts us at the top of the medal count - both in 2006 and in 2010, and now again in 2014 - for actual Olympic medalists. When we consider whether we owned the podium in 2014 it is important to consider the true value of an actual medal.