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A Decent Second Week Saved The U.S. From Olympic Catastrophe

Now that the 2018 Winter Olympics are officially over, it’s time for one last update from our simple model that compares each country’s medal count with what we’d expect it to earn based on its history in each sport. Here’s how it works, in a nutshell: To get a given country’s baseline, we calculated how often it won gold, silver and bronze medals (out of all medals possible) in each Olympic sport from the 1998 Games through the 2014 Games.1 Then, as things played out in Pyeongchang, we used those historical rates to determine how far every country was above or below its usual Winter Olympic pace. Here are the final numbers from 2018:

Who impressed — and disappointed — in Pyeongchang?

Actual and expected medal counts by country in the 2018 Winter Olympics

Country Gold Silver Bronze Total vs. Expected
1 Norway 14 14 11 39 +11.1
2 Germany 14 10 7 31 -3.6
3 Canada 11 8 10 29 +1.2
4 United States 9 8 6 23 -12.9
5 Netherlands 8 6 6 20 +5.0
6 South Korea 5 8 4 17 +7.6
Olympic athletes from Russia 2 6 9 17 -1.0*
8 Switzerland 5 6 4 15 +1.4
France 5 4 6 15 +0.4
10 Sweden 7 6 1 14 +2.5
Austria 5 3 6 14 -7.1
12 Japan 4 5 4 13 +6.1
13 Italy 3 2 5 10 -0.7
14 China 1 6 2 9 -2.5
15 Czech Republic 2 2 3 7 +1.3
16 Finland 1 1 4 6 -3.3
17 Great Britain 1 0 4 5 +2.6
18 Belarus 2 1 0 3 -0.9
Slovakia 1 2 0 3 +1.7
Australia 0 2 1 3 -0.6
21 Poland 1 0 1 2 -1.8
Slovenia 0 1 1 2 -1.0
Spain 0 0 2 2 +2.0
New Zealand 0 0 2 2 +2.0
25 Hungary 1 0 0 1 +1.0
Ukraine 1 0 0 1 -0.2
Belgium 0 1 0 1 +0.8
Kazakhstan 0 0 1 1 +0.0
Latvia 0 0 1 1 -0.7
Liechtenstein 0 0 1 1 +1.0

*Using medal rates for the Russian Federation, but with a 25 percent reduction to reflect that fewer athletes are competing this year, compared to previous games.

Sources: Sports-Reference.com, International Olympic Committee

Unsurprisingly, the record-breaking Norwegians blew away their expected total, nabbing 11 pieces of hardware more than expected based on the country’s track record. Olympic home-team South Korea also cleaned up, for nearly eight more medals than expected, continuing the general trend of host nations getting a major boost in performance at their own party. Meanwhile, others near the top of the table, such as Germany and Canada, medalled at a rate basically in line with what we’d expect (despite the latter’s existential curling crisis).

And then there were the Americans. During the games, I wrote about the U.S.’s struggles, and Team USA did end up being the biggest underachiever in medals versus expected, with a -12.9 mark. That sense of letdown can be seen not just via our simple tracker, but also in the U.S. Olympic Committee’s internal projections — which, according to The Associated Press, set 37 medals as the expected target. Team USA is going home with 23 instead, its fewest in a Winter Olympics since 1998. (Interestingly, it did have the same number of golds — nine — as it did in each of the past three Winter Games, but many fewer silvers and bronzes.)

A series of disappointing performances by big pre-Olympic favorites contributed to the generally mediocre showing for the U.S. But if there is any consolation, it’s that most of the U.S.’s underperformance happened in its first week or so in Pyeongchang, as Team USA did its best to right the ship in week 2:

Over the first half of the Olympics, the U.S. produced nine fewer medals than expected. In the second half, it was “only” 3.9 below its usual pace, and that number even briefly crept into positive territory after a five-medal performance on Day 13 that included a thrilling win over Canada in women’s ice hockey. Capping things off with a shocking upset gold in men’s curling (!!!), Team USA ended its stay in South Korea in better shape than it started.

And, as Olympic researcher (and friend of the site) Bill Mallon points out, perhaps it was unfair to expect quite so much out of the U.S. this year anyway. The data we used to set America’s baseline included one Olympics with a home-field advantage (2002 in Salt Lake City), as well as another pseudo-home competition in Vancouver in 2010. Certainly, the travel to South Korea was much more grueling. Mallon also points out that the U.S.’s traditional dominance in X-Games style sports (such as snowboarding) might be eroding as other countries devote more attention to them — another reason why expectations based on recent history might have been unrealistic.

Either way, the U.S. will leave Pyeongchang with a handful of indelible memories, despite the relative lack of medals overall. And the Norwegians, with their staggering 39 medals, will now have to grapple with their newfound status as an Olympic juggernaut.

“We always want to win,” Norwegian sports commentator Fredrik Aukland told The New York Times. “But modesty is a big part of the culture here.”

After Norway destroyed the field — and our medal tracker’s expectations — maybe braggadocio is the main thing it should work on going into the 2022 Games in Beijing.

Footnotes

  1. With the exception of the Olympic athletes from Russia, who got a discounted version of the Russian Federation’s medal rates over the 1998-2014 span.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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