The USA Performance at PyeongChang – An Analysis

Much ado has been made about the USA performance in PyeongChang, but is it much ado about nothing? Let’s look at the stats.

Here are the recent USA medal performances at the Winter Olympics.

Year G S B TM MedalOps %%%
1976 3 3 4 10 100 10.0%
1980 6 4 2 12 103 11.7%
1984 4 4 0 8 106 7.5%
1988 2 1 3 6 123 4.9%
1992 5 4 2 11 150 7.3%
1994 6 5 2 13 162 8.0%
1998 6 3 4 13 177 7.3%
2002 10 13 11 34 206 16.5%
2006 9 9 7 25 216 11.6%
2010 9 15 13 37 222 16.7%
2014 9 7 12 28 254 11.0%
2018 23 262 8.8%

The 23 # for 2018 is a guesstimate based on what they have won thru 19 February.

What is medal ops? Events do not uniformly allow a nation to win three medals. Most team events only allow a nation to enter 1 team (bobsled has 2). So medal ops is the total number of medals that a nation can win, and %%% is the percentage of the possible medals they could win. You can see the program inflation at the Winter Olympics, primarily due to the introduction of X-Games sports since 1988.

So what if we don’t count the X-Games events? How are we doing in the classic winter sports – those that were on the program prior to 1992, when the X-Games sports like freestyle skiing, snowboarding, skeleton, and short-track speed skating, came on the program.

Here are those #s.

Year G S B TM MedalOps %%%
1976 3 3 4 10 100 10.0%
1980 6 4 2 12 103 11.7%
1984 4 4 0 8 106 7.5%
1988 2 1 3 6 123 4.9%
1992 3 3 1 7 136 5.1%
1994 5 3 0 8 136 5.9%
1998 3 3 2 8 137 5.8%
2002 5 7 8 20 154 13.0%
2006 5 6 2 13 158 8.2%
2010 6 11 5 22 158 13.9%
2014 3 3 7 13 166 7.8%
2018 10 173 5.8%

Again, the 10 # for 2018 is a guesstimate.

Let’s look more closely. In 2002 and 2010 we won about 1/6th of the available medals. What do those two Olympics have in common? They were home fields for the USA. I know, you will demur and say, “Wait a minute, 2010 was in Canada,” but Vancouver sits on the US border and is probably easier to get to for US fans than Salt Lake, and travel for US athletes was no problem. It was a home field for us, for certain. It is well known that home nations always improve their performance in the medal table.

Further, after competing in a home nation Olympics, those nations typically do less well at the next few Olympics after that – see in which I showed pretty effectively that after a nation hosts an Olympics, it tends to win about 75% as many medals at the next Olympics, then 60% at the Olympics after that, and 50% at the Olympics 12-years down the road.

So after the two “home” Olympics of 2002 and 2010, we could definitely expect to see a diminution of American medal expectations. But it was never presented as such.

Further, not only does the USA do better in home Olympics, the further we travel the less well we do, although the numbers there are not as strong. The last Asian Winter Olympics was in 1998 at Nagano. There we won 7.3% of available medals vs. a projected 8.8% in 2018. In the classic sports we won 5.8% of available medals in Nagano, and are projected to win … 5.8% of those medals in PyeongChang.

Another problem has been our performance in those X-Games sports – we’re not doing as well as once we did. Even that is not unusual. Think about other “modern” sports which had an American origin, or one in which Americans pioneered them. Triathlon – we were once dominant – think of the Scotts (Dave, Molina, Tinley) at the Ironman, winning every year. Now we rarely get on the podium. Mountain biking was once an American stronghold (remember Ned Overend), but by the time it got to Olympics in 1996, we were an afterthought.

The same is happening in the X-Games winter sports. In short-track speed skating (I know, its technically not in the X-Games, but same difference), once we had Cathy Turner winning golds, and Apolo Anton Ohno winning multiple medals, but now the Koreans are so dominant. We usually are happy with an occasional bronze.

In freestyle skiing and snowboarding, we’re still very good, but the Europeans have started to focus on these sports, and our dominance has been waning. With nationally subsidized sports programs, which is common in Europe, once sports get on the Olympic program those nations start focusing on them, and usually improve quickly.

What of the classic sports and our medal chances in 2018, look at them with a retrospectoscope, realistically.

  • Alpine Skiing – we had no male medal hopes. Bode is retired and Ted Ligety is returning from back surgery. On the women’s side, we have Lindsay and Mikaela but that’s it. Julia Mancuso just retired after many hip injuries, and there is nobody in the pipeline at the moment. Even with Lindsay Vonn, that is not the same body as in 2006-10, after 2 ACL recons and a humeral shaft fracture, with an ORIF and a radial nerve palsy.
  • Biathlon – we’ve never won a medal. Lowell Bailey did win a World Championship in 2017, but has struggled this year and I think medal expectations were unrealistic.
  • Bobsled – since 2002 we have started winning medals again, but the USA Team was devastated by the tragic early death of Steve Holcomb, our best driver. Without him, our medal chances greatly diminished.
  • Cross-Country Skiing – Bill Koch won a medal in 1976 in the 30 km. Boxing had the great white hopes of Jerry Quarry in 1970s and Gerry Cooney in the 1980s, and every Winter Olympics we hear of another great American white-snow hope, but like Quarry and Cooney, they never seem to materialize.
  • Figure Skating – our singles skaters have not been very good for almost a decade now. Our pairs skaters have never been at the top internationally. Ice dance has now become our best event. Adding the team event has helped us win a medal because of our depth, but we are not the world leaders in this sport.
  • Ice Hockey – the women are excellent, with only the Canadians to rival them. On the men’s side, without the NHL did anyone seriously think we could beat European teams that are playing skaters from the KHL, the world’s second best league? There is still a chance – maybe they can pull off an upset.
  • Luge – we’ve never won much and cannot touch the Germans. Chris Mazdzer won a medal, which is a reasonably good performance for the US in this sport.
  • Nordic Combined – we won 4 medals in the sport at Vancouver, but those are the only medals we have ever won. We were not expecting any in PyeongChang.
  • Ski Jumping – we have won 1 medal, a bronze in 1924 by Anders Haugen, a Norwegian émigré, who only received it in 1974 after a scoring error was revealed. A top 10 finish in this sport is rare for the US.
  • Speed Skating – paraphrasing Rick Pitino, “Eric Heiden (or Bonnie Blair or Dan Jansen) is not walking thru that door.” On the men’s side our only medal hope was Joey Mantia, and he still has his best event, the mass start. For the women, Brittany Bowe and Heather Bergsma were the best skaters in the world – in 2016. Bowe then had a concussion and recovered slowly and Bergsma has not been as good in the last 2 seasons. Media attention on our speed skating hopes may be overblown because our skaters often post world leading times, but that is usually at Salt Lake City, or Calgary, which are known as the 2 fastest ovals in the world.

Winter Olympic sports must be those held on snow or ice, per the Olympic Charter. There are 3 basic sports – skiing, skating, and sliding. In those the USA has been the dominant nation only rarely – figure skating from 1952-60, and Eric Heiden in speed skating in 1977-80. In Alpine skiing, the Austrians and Swiss dominate. In Nordic skiing, it’s the Norwegians. Speed skating belongs to the Dutch skaters, or the Koreans in short-track. And in the sliding sports (bobsled, luge, skeleton), the Germans are nonpareil.

So, we have had almost a perfect storm set up against the USA Winter Olympians at PyeongChang: 1) they were being compared to performances in 2002 and 2010 at home Olympics; 2) with the host nation bounce effect, fewer medals should have been expected; 3) with an Asian games, so far away from home, we do not always perform as well, and we have been similar to the last one at Nagano, Japan; 4) with Europeans focusing more on X-Games sports, our dominance there is waning; and 5) in the classic winter sports, we’ve had many injuries, a death, and retirements of our top athletes, and we have almost never been a dominant nation.

The @TeamUSA performance at PyeongChang has not been bad, despite reports to the contrary. We’ve had many, many 4th, 5th, and 6th place finishes, as pointed out by Rich Perelman in The Sports Examiner, and echoed by USA team spokesman Mark Jones. But the expectations of 30-35 medals should never have been made – they were unrealistic.

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