Countries from all over the world have sent athletes to compete in 15 events in the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games. Although there are 88 countries participating in the Olympics, seven of them hold nearly 60 per cent of all total medals awarded so far. This is not new. Historically, specific countries have excelled in niche sports, thus padding their medal counts: Germany, luge; Norway, cross-country skiing; Netherlands, speed skating. Furthermore, there is a clear lack of parity across the sports, with disciplines such as speed skating and cross-country skiing hosting 12 events apiece, compared to sports such as skeleton, ice hockey, and curling represented with a mere two events each at the 2014 Winter Olympics.
With certain countries able to dominate the podium in a specific sport—particularly in disciplines that have multiple events—the medal board at the Olympics has become extremely top-heavy with a drastic drop-off after the first few positions. How can the Winter Olympics be altered for increased parity in the standings?
Introducing a point system
South Korea has had a historical vice-grip on the short-track speed skating circuit, having won 37 of their country’s 45 medals—including 19 gold—in the sport. There are eight short-track speed skating events, with South Korea being the only realistic competitor every time the Winter Olympics roll around.
Although a country’s expertise in a sport should not be penalized, it should also not be disproportionately rewarded. What makes short-track speed skating more valuable than a sport such as skeleton? There are only two medals available for countries that specialize in the latter, compared to the nearly automatic eight awarded to South Korea for short-track speed skating.
I am not advocating for higher-represented sports to be cut down—the more events there are, the more opportunities there are for athletes to compete in the Olympics. I am also not calling for sports such as curling and ice hockey to sprout eight new iterations, and thus potentially cheapen the value of their respective competitions.
However, I do think that the system needs to change if parity is to be achieved. Why not award an appropriately ratioed amount of points for medals in sports such as alpine skiing, relative to a sport with fewer available medals such as bobsledding? Or consider establishing a stock system, in which sports below five events are awarded the full point, sports between five and eight events are awarded 0.50 points, and sports with over eight events awarded 0.25 points per medal.
Beyond establishing more parity in the standings, this would provide incentive for countries to train and excel at less popularized sports, and hopefully provide more exposure for the athletes that compete in lesser-known events.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it
In an event such as the Winter Olympics, achieving widespread parity across the medal standings is unrealistic for multiple reasons. The concept of a winter competition gives an inherent advantage to countries that experience long winter seasons, making the record-setting 88 nation cohort a misleading statistic.
The fact that different countries are better at different sports highlights the notion of a comparative advantage, and should be considered a good thing. German luging, Dutch speed skating, and Norwegian cross-country skiing are all events that are ingrained in the respective athletic cultures of these nations and are a source of national pride. It just so happens that these sports are more individual-based, which leads to more medals—not the fault of individual national Olympic Committees who have cultivated an athletics culture in a certain sport. Athletes should not be punished if they medal in an event in which their nation is dominant because of efforts to artificially induce parity.
We should not be fixing something that isn’t broken. Country specialization in events should be celebrated as a harbinger of diversity, and should spark more competition, as other nations pour resources into certain events in an effort to try and knock off incumbent powerhouses. The Olympics are supposed to be a venue for the best athletes from countries across the world to showcase their talents. If their efforts are diminished by any sort of table tampering, it would detract from the spirit of the Games.
Different solutions for different visions
The final medal standings are a bit of an oddity in the Olympics. Despite the spirit of competition throughout the event, the ultimate outcome is actually rather ambiguous. No nation is declared the winner of the Olympics; the closing ceremonies are a celebration rather than a declaration of overall victory.
If we seek to make the final standings more representative, we must first determine what they should be representing. Should the winner be the country that is the most dominant overall? In that case, give all sports equal weighting in the final standings, or impose diminishing returns on medals won in a single sport. Is it the country with the most dominant individuals? Factor margins of victory from each event into the final standings. Trying to give smaller countries a chance? Divide results by the number of events competed in and rank countries based on the resulting coefficient.
Perhaps the answer is to have multiple calculations, declaring a winner in different categories. Maybe we should award smaller countries a handicap in the standings. Or maybe we should let it be, and let the standings remain an afterthought in these games that are supposedly built around sportsmanship and unity.
With differing climates, budgets, and levels of interest, there will inevitably be disparity between countries. The way we deal with that disparity comes down to how we define an Olympic champion, and ultimately what we feel the Olympics represent.