December 06, 2004

Canada's 2004 Performance (Part II)

The COC announced their medal targets for the next three Olympic Games, which includes the extremely ambitious goal of finishing first in the medal standings in 2010 in Vancouver.

Earlier I wrote an entry about Canada's Olympic Team performance in Athens this past summer, and commented on the small number of medals won by Canadians who went into the Games as defending world champions.

This same topic is being discussed around the COC. In those circles, the discussion is framed in terms of Canada's "conversion" of high world rankings into medals.

My lovely assistant and I have collected some more data on this subject ourselves; a good resource on this subject is the Official Athens Olympics website, which contains participant profiles and official results.

You can see our raw data here. The following table summarizes my findings on the medal conversion rates of six countries in 2004. Further explanation and discussion follows.

Analysis of 2003 world championship medallists performing at the 2004 Olympic Games: all medallists
  AUS     CUB     HUN     CAN     BUL     NOR  
Population (millions) 19.9 11.3 10.0 32.5 7.5 4.5
2004 Olympic Medallists 49 27 17 12 12 6
2003 World Championship Medallists at 2004 Olympics 36 19 19 15 13 3
Percentage Change (2003 to 2004) +36% +42% +11% -20% -8% +100%
Number of 2003 Medallists Winning 2004 Olympic Medals 18 14 9 5 8 2
Percentage of 2003 Medallists Winning 2004 Olympic Medals 50% 74% 47% 33% 62% 67%

Note 1 — An athlete or team is counted as a 2003 world championship medallist only if their sport held a world championship in 2003, and the athlete or team won a medal in an event that is contested at the Olympics.

Note 2 — For team events where a team consists of fewer than four athletes, then the team is counted as a 2003 world championship medallist only if the team competing in Athens is identical to the team that won a medal at the 2003 world championships.

Note 3 — For Hungary, Robert Fazekas (Discus) and Adrian Annus (Hammer) were not counted as 2003 world championship medallists, although both athletes won a silver medal at the 2003 world athletics championships. Both were disqualified from the 2004 Olympics for doping violations, after initially being awarded a gold medal.

The six countries were chosen for various reasons. Australia and Norway are often used in Canada as a benchmark of the performance that Canada should be able to achieve — Australia in the summer Olympics, and Norway in the winter Olympics. I chose Cuba as an example of a low-resource and low-population country that outperforms Canada in spite of these disadvantages. Hungary is similar to Cuba in population, but more prosperous, and with a broader sporting focus. I picked Bulgaria just because they tied Canada in the medal table.

The first line of the table is the national population, in millions. Canada is the most populous nation in the group at 32.5 million people.

The second line is the 2004 medal total. Canada finished 19th among all nations, with 12 medals.

The third line is the number of 2003 world championship medallists who competed in the same event at the 2004 Olympics. I am going to interpret this as a simple measure of the number of "medal favourites" from each country. This neglects, among other things, those athletes who were young and rising stars in 2004. However, what I am most interested in here is how established performers, who had already proven themselves, performed at the Olympic Games.

The fifth line is the overall percentage difference between the number of medal favourites (by this simple statistic) and the actual number of medals. Canada had the worst performance of all six countries, by this measure. However, this percentage change is not applicable specifically for the group of favourites, as it includes all medals by all athletes in 2004. This is therefore a combination of the success rate of the medal favourites, and the new medals won by non-favourites.

The sixth and seventh lines in the table really underline the conversion issue. These indicate the number and percentage of medal favourites who actually won medals in their favoured events. Note that this does not include athletes who were favoured in one event, but won medals in a different event at the 2004 Games. Here we can see that Canada's conversion rate was only 5/15, or 33%, which is easily the lowest of the six countries studied here.

To finish the point I started in my earlier entry, Canada looks even worse when we just consider 2003 gold medallists:

Analysis of 2003 world championship medallists performing at the 2004 Olympic Games: gold medallists
  AUS     CUB     HUN     CAN     BUL     NOR  
Population (millions) 19.9 11.3 10.0 32.5 7.5 4.5
2004 Olympic Gold Medallists 17 9 8 3 2 5
2003 World Championship Gold Medallists at 2004 Olympics 12 6 4 6 5 2
Percentage Change (2003 to 2004) +42% +50% +100% -50% -60% +150%
Number of 2003 Gold Medallists Winning 2004 Olympic Medals 9 6 4 2 5 2
Percentage of 2003 Gold Medallists Winning 2004 Olympic Medals 75% 100% 100% 33% 100% 100%

Overall, if you were a 2003 world championship medallist from one of these five countries (not including Canada), you had a slightly better than 60% probability of winning a medal at the Olympics. If you were a 2003 gold medallist, you had almost a 90% probability of winning a medal at the Olympics! Canadians converted, either way, at a rate of only one in three.

There are several possible explanations for the discrepancies in conversion rate. First of all, it could be just luck, or normal statistical variation. Perhaps the ball just didn't bounce Canada's way this time. One way to answer this question would be to analyze past Olympics in the same way.

Second, some of the discrepancy is probably due to the differences between sports. For example, it might be much easier to repeat as a medallist in swimming, where conditions are carefully controlled and strategic considerations are minimal, than it is in sailing. Some of these countries are dominant in a small group of sports. For example, Cuba won most of its medals in combat sports (Boxing, Wrestling, Judo, etc.). The sports contested by Canada, Australia, Hungary, and Norway, however, have a significant overlap. A proper analysis of this issue would have to consider the "conversion history" of each event at the Games.

Finally, and most interesting if true, it could be that there is something about Canadian athletes and their preparation that puts them at a disadvantage when it comes to being favourites at the Olympic Games. Remember that we are talking about the world's elite athletes here, who have already on at least one occasion proved themselves to be among the top 3 in the world. Canada's sport system has helped them reach — or, at least, has not prevented them from reaching — this level. So what is it that we're doing wrong for the Olympics? This is a question that the COC would like to answer.

It is worth emphasizing, though, that even if we can turn our athletes into excellent "converters," it isn't going to transform us into a sporting powerhouse. If Canadian medal favourites had converted at a rate of 60%, that would have meant four more medals, for a total of 16. (The gold medal analysis indicates that at least three of the new medals should have been expected from our defending world champions.) That would be two more than we won in Sydney, but still short of the 22 in Atlanta, and still quite poor for our population. Even if our conversion rate could be elevated to 80%, we'd only be talking about an additional 7 medals for a total of 19. So if we really want to catch Australia, or even Cuba, we'll have to figure out a way to get better conversion and more favourites to start with.

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