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What The Last Winter Olympics Would Have Looked Like Without Russia

The International Olympic Committee’s suspension of Russia from the 2018 Winter Olympics for doping leaves us in uncharted territory. Previous Olympics have been held without a Russian presence,1 but there’s never been a doping ban of this magnitude in Olympic history, and Russia (or the Soviet Union) has been at every Winter Games since 1956.

To get a sense of how this ban may affect the other countries, we recalculated the Sochi results to see what the medal table would look like without the Russians. Eleven Russian medals have already been stripped in the doping fallout, but those lost golds, silvers and bronzes were never backfilled and remain vacant. Of course, it’s very possible that many of the Russian athletes, including some of Sochi’s medalists, will still compete in Pyeongchang under the IOC banner.2 But for this experiment, we will show the effects of the Winter Games losing all Russian competitors.

In our exercise, we simply bumped up anyone who finished behind a Russian at Sochi. If the Russians swept the podium, like they did in men’s 50-kilometer mass start cross-country skiing, we awarded medals to those who finished fourth through sixth.

The absence of the Russians in a Winter Games definitely benefits certain countries more than others — mainly because the Russians are good at many things but not everything. Here are some takeaways from our reimagined Sochi Games:

  • USA takes top spot. The United States leads the medal table now, which is none too surprising considering the U.S. leads the table after the 11 medals were stripped, too.
  • Latvia makes history. Latvia earns the first two gold medals at a Winter Games in its country’s history. The Latvians, like the Russians, are good at the sliding sports, so without the Russians, they nab two golds in men’s skeleton and four-man bobsled — which they deserve anyway because those two Russian medals were among those stripped away.
  • Gracie Bronze. The U.S. women have been left off the podium in the past two Winter Games in the premier event of single figure skating. Aptronymic American hopeful Gracie Gold finished in a disappointing fourth in Sochi, but she sneaks onto the podium now.
  • China improves its haul. The 2022 hosts specialize in short-track speed skating, a series of events that the Russian men dominated in Sochi. In the adjusted table, the Chinese add five medals, making them the biggest mover in the medal standings.
  • The alpine events go untouched. The Russians are seldom a factor on the slopes, and the 2014 skiing results stay the same. So if there are any countries where the Russian ban means the least in terms of medal haul, it’s the alpine powers of Switzerland and Austria. Likewise, Canada and the U.S., which traditionally rule the snowboarding events, will see a lesser effect because the Russians are not particularly notable at that either, despite collecting some hardware in Sochi.

Thanks to the speedy work done by The New York Times, we can start to put together a picture of the implications of winning medals in Pyeongchang, which will host the games that are due to start in just 65 days. Of the 102 events at next year’s games, Russian athletes would have been likely medal contenders in 32 of them, based on their performances at the most recent world championship-level event for each sport. In particular, Russia seemed primed for a big showing in cross-country skiing: Russian athletes had finished within the top five positions in eight of the sport’s 12 events during their latest world championship-level contests.

Russia has long been a power player at the Winter Games, with dominating performances in certain events over the years, particularly at Sochi. If the Russian athletes are not in South Korea in two months, it will be the other Winter Olympic mainstays that could receive a boosted chance of medal glory.

Footnotes

  1. The Soviet Union didn’t participate in the Olympics until 1952 and boycotted the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.

  2. Individual Russian athletes are permitted to participate in the games as long as they meet certain criteria and are deemed “clean,” though they cannot compete under the Russian name and flag.

Daniel Levitt is a sports writer at FiveThirtyEight. He’s an alum of the University of Missouri.

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