Inside the Final Medal Count at the 2014 Winter Olympics

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Inside the Final Medal Count at the 2014 Winter Olympics
Associated Press
U.S. men swept the slopestyle skiing event in Sochi.

As the curtain comes down in Sochi without the 2014 Winter Olympics delivering an indelible signature moment, several teams are entitled to walk away feeling they turned in the top performance.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is certain to lay claim to that honor, and he can back it up statistically. The home team spent the most time on the podium, leading the Games with 33 total medals and also with 13 golds. That's substantially up from 15 medals and three golds for Russia in 2010. 

But critics will note that means Russia's medals cost about $1.55 billion apiece at Putin's $51 billion Games, and they didn't even get the one they coveted most, in men's hockey.

Norway, which heads home to its nation of five million with 26 medals overall and 11 golds, is the runaway winner for triumphs per capita. But if that success comes as a surprise to most Americans, it's because NBC didn't spend much of prime time tracking the cross-country skiing, biathlon and Nordic combined events—low-profile action that accounted for 21 of Norway's medallions.

The U.S. checks in with a very respectable 28 medals and nine golds, and it should be penning a thank-you note to the International Olympic Committee for the 12 new events that were added in Sochi. That's where the U.S. bloated its count, with five golds and nine total medals. No other nation had more than five medals or two golds in debut events.

Give Canadians credit for sustaining the Winter Olympics momentum they built as host of the 2010 Vancouver Games, with 25 medals and 10 golds.

Petr David Josek/Associated Press/Associated Press
Canada defended its gold medals in men's and women's hockey.

That's four fewer golds than they won last time, and in Sochi they were top-heavy with nine freestyle skiing medals. But with the Maple Leaf flag flying victoriously at both hockey finals, they're cackling about sticking it to their neighbors to the south.

And then there's the Netherlands, the nation whose people seem a little confused when they say they're from Holland while also calling themselves Dutch. But they definitely know their way around the long-track speedskating oval, where they won 23 of their 24 medals.

The Dutch could have left everyone except their long-track speedskaters home and still placed fifth in the world for total medals, which is an unprecedented show of dominance at the Winter Olympics.

Now then, let's drill down into Sochi's ice and snow and take a deeper look at the results of the XXII Winter Olympics.

***

Back before the Berlin Wall fell, there was a sense that if Germany ever unified, it would field an Olympic team that was unstoppable. That certainly seemed to be the case in 2002, when the Germans collected 36 medals.

Natacha Pisarenko/Associated Press/Associated Press
Once-powerful Germany dominated only in luge at Sochi.

But now the medal total of the team that combined East and West Germany has headed south. Most nations would be overjoyed with the Germans' total of 19 medals, but that's a big drop from the 30 they won in 2010 and the 29 they earned in 2006.

They ranked only sixth in Sochi.

Germany once had a fearsome presence at virtually every venue, but in Sochi they dominated only in luge, where they swept all four golds and added a silver. It must have been painful for them to see the U.S. rise in bobsled, winning four medals with the help of BMW.

But what hurt the Germans even worse in the medal count was that their athletes finished fourth 11 times, second only to Norway's 12 in the heartbreak category.

***

China's team also shouldn't expect a huge welcome home. When the Chinese won 100 medals while hosting the 2008 Summer Olympics, some figured they would start manufacturing golds, silvers and bronzes at a feverish rate. But the Olympic drive of the world's most populous nation seems to have slipped into neutral.

Their summer team's medal total slipped to 88 at London in 2012, and the winter team has also stalled. China won 11 winter medals in 2006 and again in 2010, but it slipped to nine this time around.

The only place they looked tough was in short-track speedskating, where they led with six medals, one more than Russia.

***

So if China and Germany are gigantic nations that underachieved, who besides Norway and the Netherlands are the little guys who thrived? Glad you asked, because the folks at MedalsPerCapita.com have done a marvelous job of assessing that.

According to their numbers, the nations that produced the most medals per capita are:

Gregorio Borgia/Associated Press/Associated Press
Cross-country skier Marit Bjoergen won a sixth career gold medal for Norway.

  1. Norway, 26 medals, one per 192,526 people 
  2. Slovenia, eight medals, one per 257,192
  3. Austria, 17, one per 497,225.

Belarus also deserves a nod. It ranks 11th with one medal per 1.58 million people, but five of its six medals were gold. 

The U.S. takes a hit if performance is judged on this basis, ranking 21st with one medal per 11.61 million people. Russia does better, coming in 15th with one per 4.95 million.

And China looks downright dreadful, coming in last among the 26 nations that medaled, with one for every 149.71 million people.

One last population note: If the U.S. won medals at the same per-capita rate as Norway, we'd get 20 from Los Angeles alone.

***

Seeing 26 nations medal in Sochi was a fairly predictable number. In the seven Winter Olympics from 1992-2014, the number of nations to take home hardware has never been lower than 20, and never higher than 26.

But during that same period, the number of participating nations has swelled from 64 to 88.

What that says is that while it's fun to get a geography lesson from such nations as Togo, Tonga and Zimbabwe joining the opening-ceremony parade of nations this year, the ever-growing list of participants isn't impacting competition much.

At Sochi, there were no first-timers among the nations that medaled.

***

Ivan Sekretarev/Associated Press/Associated Press
Meryl Davis and Charlie White claimed gold in ice dance.

Let's face it, not all medals are created equal. With NBC showing every bobble and twizzle by figure skaters, those medals are always the most closely inspected part of the American portfolio.

The U.S. figure skating results were camouflaged slightly by winning a bronze in the new team event, but beyond that they were awful, with only a gold in the ice dance. The last time the U.S. performed so poorly across the board in the four traditional events was 1994, when Nancy Kerrigan's silver was the lone medal.

And to find an Olympics where they were shut out in the men's, women's and pairs events, you have to go all the way back to 1936.

***

The U.S. success in this year's new events continues what has been America's most important Winter Olympics trend over the last 20 years—the ability to jump on the bandwagon and grow with the times. Or, more specifically, the willingness to embrace extreme sports that have migrated to the Olympics from the Winter X Games.

From 1994 to 2014, the number of Winter Olympics events has increased from 67 to 98, meaning there are 93 more medals up for grabs.

In Sochi, the U.S. won six golds, six silvers and five bronzes in events that didn't exist in 1994, which is the good news.

But the bad news is that America is lagging in the longstanding sports. If Sochi had been limited to only the events that were around in 1994, the U.S. would have been in miserable shape on the medals table, with only three gold, one silver and seven bronzes.

Patrick Semansky/Associated Press/Associated Press
U.S. speedskaters, including Shani Davis, failed to win medals for the first time since 1984.

The biggest chunk of that blame lands squarely on the long-track speedskating team, which was shut out for medals for the first time since 1984 and only the second time since 1956.

The U.S. also continued its futility in three sports where it medaled only once apiece: cross-country skiing, ski jumping and curling. And of course in biathlon, where it has never sent anyone to the podium.

The U.S. men's hockey team also slumps when it travels far. While the women took home the silver medal in Sochi, the men have failed to earn an Olympic medal outside of North America in six tries since 1972.

***

Yes, Russia did much better than four years ago, and its 15 to 33 increase in medals essentially matches the 13 to 34 boom the U.S. enjoyed at Salt Lake City in 2002.

Among other recent hosts, France went from two medals to nine at Albertville in 1992, and the Japanese doubled up from five to 10 at Nagano in 1998. But the Italians somehow managed to drop from 13 to 11 when they hosted at Turin in 2006. 

The 2018 hosts, South Korea, have plenty of work to do. They dropped off to eight medals in Sochi after scoring 14 in 2010. But South Korea rose the other time it was in this situation, winning 33 medals as host of the 1988 Summer Olympics after getting only 19 four years before.

***

So, besides the Dutch in speedskating and the Germans in luge, where else did one nation rule a venue?

In figure skating, the Russians had five medals, three of them gold. Canada was next best with three silvers.

In cross-country skiing, the Norwegians and Swedes both had 11 total medals, but Norway won for golds, 5-2.

Alessandro Trovati/Associated Press/Associated Press
Anna Fenninger's super-G gold was one of nine Alpine medals for Austria.

And with nine medals, Austria again owned Alpine skiing, where its 108 medals all time dwarfs every other nation.

But the big Austrian development is they finally realized their skiing skills could translate to the new-wave sports. They won three medals in the snowboard parallel slalom, after never before scoring in an extreme event. If they become as good in Winter X Games events as they are at Alpine, it could take a big bite out of future U.S. medals counts.

***

Before wrapping up, let's take a moment to appreciate Bode Miller one last time. His bronze in the super-G gave him a career sixth medal and tied him with long-track speedskater Bonnie Blair for second all time among U.S. Winter Olympians.

Alessandro Trovati/Associated Press/Associated Press
Bode Miller won his sixth career Olympic medal at Sochi.

But Miller needed 19 starts to get there, including taking an 0-of-5 whiff in Turin in 2006. Blair won her six in just seven starts, missing the podium only in the 500 meters in 1984, at the age of 19.

Short-tracker Apolo Anton Ohno is still the all-time U.S. leader with eight medals, in 12 starts. But no American has come close to matching the five golds speedskater Eric Heiden won in five races in 1980, in his only Olympic appearance.

***

Lastly, don't pick a U.S. flag-bearer on your Winter Olympics fantasy team. By not finishing in the top three in Nordic combined, Todd Lodwick made it 10 Winter Olympics in a row that the athlete who received that honor failed to medal.

 

Tom Weir has covered eight Winter Olympics as a columnist and reporter for USA Today. You can follow him on Twitter at @TomWeirSports.

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