The 2010 Winter Olympics are over and the USA came out on top with the highest medal count at 37. Germany was next at 30, followed by Canada at 26.
Lost in those numbers is any measure of difficulty. Gold medals are lumped together with Silver and Bronze. And we lose any indication of the overall challenge: more competitors mean more challenging games. For example, if there were only three countries competing, then coming in third place is no great distinction.
The overall number of medals is also a floating marker. This is because the number of games included in the Olympics has been increasing.
So I decided to plot a few pictures to have a better idea of what is happening.
The first is a shot of the number of games in competition. In the first Winter Games in 1924, there were only 16 sports. This fell by two in the next two meetings, but then gradually rose to a full 86 in the 2010 games.
The rate of increase was roughly the same, barring the interruption of World War II, up until about 1984, when the pace quickened. About 9 new medal-games were added each time. The addition of new games has slowed down lately: from 2006 until 2010, only 2 games were added. Still, if this pace continues, the 2022 meeting will host about 100 games.
The number of countries that participate in the games has also been increasing. The proxy for this is provided in the next picture, which shows the number of countries that won medals in each of the meetings (I don’t have the number of countries that did not win any medals).
About the same rate of increase that we saw in the number of games is present in the number of countries winning medals. This shouldn’t be too surprising: the more chances of winning something, the more likely we’ll see more countries winning at least one medal.
There have only been six countries that have participated in all 21 Winter Olympics since 1924: Austria, Canada, Finland, Norway, Sweden, and the USA. Germany rates a special mention: it did not participate in 1924 or 1928, but has since then; although it did, at times, have a split personality.
The next picture shows how the old hands have performed through time. It shows the percent of medals won. For example, in 1924, Norway won 4 Gold, 7 Silver, and 6 Bronze, or 17 total. There were 48 medals awarded (to all countries) in that year, and Norway took 35% of them, clearly placing it on top: the next best country was Finland with about 22%.
The Norwegians have continued to do well through the years, coming out on top in many of them. Their performance, like the other countries shown, has been decreasing, but that is function of the increasing number of countries participating.
Canada has been doing better, gradually improving since 1980. Sweden is sinking, as is Finland. Austria can’t make up its mind. Germany is decreasing slightly (that flat line in the middle joins the old and new Germany). The USA is improving.
Still, that picture is confused by the increasing number of competitors. The next picture attempts to adjust for that by weighting the percent medals won by the number of countries that won at least one medal. For example, Norway’s 1924 35% when there were only 5 other countries in competition can be compared with Norway’s 2010 8% when there were 25 other countries winning medals.
This changes the situation some. The USA and Canada now show more dramatic improvements. Norway is still holding it own, as is Germany (same problem of East-West missing years). But now Sweden’s and Finland’s demise does not appear imminent. And Austria looks to be improving.
If there is great, overwhelming, I-can’t-stand-not-knowing interest, I can link to plots for more countries. Just let me know.