How Canada's 1988 Olympic team is as good as our 2014 team

I heard or read somewhere that we're no longer the 1988 Olympic team that didn't win a gold medal. Canada's 2014 Olympic team has a winning attitude and we will no longer accept that lacklustre performance from 1988.

I'm not saying that I'm a fan of this winning attitude that has especially surfaced this year, but this comment made me curious. How many medals could we have gotten in 1988 with the "Own The Podium" funding, support and mentality of 2014?

In 1988, we won 5 medals - two silver (Brian Orser and Elizabeth Manley in figure skating) and three bronze (Tracy Wilson & Robert McCall in figure skating and Karen Percy winning two in alpine skiing).

Looking at the events available in 1988 with the 2014 results for those events, today's athletes would have won 5 medals - three silver and two bronze. We still would not win a gold medal at our home Olympics.

I couldn't believe it!

How could our "Own The Podium" 25 medals in 2014 equal 5 medals in 1988? The answer is that the Olympics have changed, not necessarily Canada's performances. The new 2014 events like slopestyle, halfpipe and team events weren't there, but neither were women's bobsleigh, women's hockey, NHL players, curling, freestyle skiing, snowboard or short track speed skating.

Which members of our 2014 team would have won medals in 1988 events? Patrick Chan, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir would have won their silvers in figure skating, Denny Morrison would have won his silver and bronze in speed skating; and Jan Hudec the bronze in Super-G.

Luckily, looking at the 2010 Olympics results, that team would have won two gold medals in 1988. Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir in ice dance and Christine Nesbitt in speed skating. In total the 2010 team would have won seven medals in 1988.

There are two messages I am coming away with looking at these numbers. The first is that our team results have not changed much in the traditional Olympic sports. Twenty of our 25 medals in 2014 were won in events that were not part of the Olympics in 1988.

The other eye-opening realization is how little women's events there were in 1988. Women competed in 5 of the 10 sports: alpine skiing, cross-country skiing, figure skating, luge and speed skating. They did not compete in biathlon, bobsleigh (won gold in 2014), hockey (won gold in 2014) and ski jumping. Nordic combined still does not include women.

Looking at the results in more detail brings some interesting findings.

Here are the medal tables for 1988 and 2014 (in order by total medals rather than the official manner of ranking by gold medal).

In 1988

  1. Soviet Union 29
  2. East Germany 25
  3. Switzerland 15
  4. Austria 10
  5. West Germany 8
  6. Finland 7
  7. Netherlands 7
  8. Sweden 6
  9. USA 6
  10. Italy 5
  11. Norway 5
  12. Canada 5

5 more with less than 5 medals
= 17 nations, 138 medals

In 2014

  1. Russia 33
  2. USA 28
  3. Norway 26
  4. Canada 25
  5. Netherlands 24
  6. Germany 19
  7. Austria 17
  8. France 15
  9. Sweden 15
  10. Switzerland 11

16 other countries with less than 10 medals
= 26 nations, 295 medals

The countries who have increased their medal counts the most are Canada (5 to 25), USA (6 to 28),  Norway (5 to 24) and Netherlands (7 to 26).

With the number of medals doubling, it's natural that Canada (and others) would win more medals in 2014 than in 1988.

What would the medal table look like if we compare the 2014 results with the events available in 1988? (removing men's hockey with lack of NHL players)

2014 results in 1988 events (1988 number in brackets)

  1. Netherlands 22 (7)
  2. Norway 15 (5)
  3. Russia 14 + Latvia 2 + Kazakhstan 1 (Soviet Union 29 minus 1 hockey gold=28)
  4. Austria 14 (10)
  5. Germany 14 (East 25, West 8)
  6. USA 9 (6)
  7. Sweden 7 (6 minus 1 hockey bronze = 5)
  8. Switzerland 6 (15)
  9. Canada 5 (5)
  10. Italy 4 (5)
  11. France 4 (2)
  12. Slovenia 4 + Croatia 1 (Yugoslavia 3)
  13. Poland 4 (0)
  14. Czech Republic 3 (Czechoslovakia 3)
  15. Japan 3 (1)
  16. South Korea 2 (0)

The interesting stats coming out of this table is that not surprisingly Soviet Union and East Germany numbers have decreased with the political changes since then.

In 2014, Netherlands have tripled their medals -  all of them in speed skating (one in short track and the rest in long track). Only two of those events were not available in 1988 (short track and team pursuit for long track).

Norway results also have tripled. Twenty-one of their 26 medals in 2014 involved cross-country skiing (including biathlon and nordic combined).

It would be interesting to study these countries' focus on those disciplines. Do they fund them almost exclusively? Are their athletes not medalling in the other sports due to lack of funding, participation/interest or support?

In contrast to Netherlands and Norway who had their improved performance in the traditional Olympic sports, Canada's and USA's numbers show that the newer sports are geared to North Americans. Seventeen of USA's 28 medals are in events that were not available in Calgary while 20 of Canada's 25 medals are.

What is Canada's medal count by sports in 2014?
Alpine Skiing 1 (in 10 events)
Biathlon 0 (in 11 events)
Bobsleigh 1 (in 3 events)
Cross-Country Skiing 0 (in 12 events)
Curling 2 (in 2 events)
Figure Skating 3 (in 5 events)
Freestyle Skiing 9 (in 10 events - 4 events with double medals)
Hockey 2 (in 2 events)
Luge 0 (in 4 events)
Nordic Combined 0 (in 3 events)
Short Track Speed Skating 3 (in 8 events)
Skeleton 0 (in 2 events)
Ski Jumping 0 (in 4 events)
Snowboarding 2 (in 10 events)
Speed Skating 2 (in 12 events)

This table also shows which sports have multiple events/medals. Netherlands excelling in speed skating that offer 12 events (32 possible medals by country) means they win more medals than someone who would excel in hockey and curling with 2 events each (and one entry per country).

To extend the comparison between 1988 and 2014, the Calgary Games offered demonstration sports which included curling, moguls, aerials and short track speed skating. We won fourteen medals including 2 in curling, 2 in freestyle and 10 in short track.

Adding only these three sports, our total is 19 medals. If we add the figure skating team event, women's hockey and the NHL players, we can easily add three more. There was no comparing data found for snowboard, halfpipe and slopestyle so let's remove those 2014 medals.

Taking all of these factors into consideration, this leaves us with:

20 medals in Sochi compared to 22 medals in Calgary

Are the new sports more popular in North America and so, it's natural that we do better in them? Do we have better facilities for these sports? The Dew Tour and NHL based in North America definitely benefits North Americans in hockey, freestyle ski and snowboard sports.

Does Own The Podium funding help the new sports more? Not necessarily here's the breakdown of their funding (newer sports in bold):

  1. freestyle skiing $3.25M
  2. alpine skiing $2.98M
  3. hockey $2.8 (includes men's, women's and sledge)
  4. bobsleigh/skeleton $2.45M
  5. snowboard $2.45M
  6. cross-country skiing $1.97M
  7. curling $1.89M
  8. short track speed skating $1.87M
  9. long track speed skating $1.67M
  10. ski cross $1.47M
  11. luge $1.09M
  12. figure skating $0.97M
  13. biathlon $0.23M

Click here for more detail.

Ideally wanting to believe that doping is minimal in Canada, are the newer sports less likely to benefit from performance enhancing drugs or blood doping? I don't believe that doping would help moguls, curling, short track or skeleton as much as it would long track speed skating, bobsleigh, cross-country skiing or biathlon? I can not be naive enough to believe that just because there are minimal positive test results in Sochi that there is minimal doping happening. I really hope that Canadians don't. I would rather see a clean 10th place finish than a tarnished podium finish.

The lifestyle of our Olympians in 2014 is probably also much better with the increased funding. More athletes in 2014 can devote their time to training and competing (and sometimes studying) whereas in 1988, the athletes probably needed to fund a lot more of their costs. Of course, the cost of equipment, travel and competing has increased as well.

Some of that extra support could account for our improved performance in many sports where national best finishes were reached. It would be interesting to look at top 10 results in 1988 and 2014 and see those improvements.

Increased funding and support is the necessity of sports nowadays in order to compete with the increased funding and costs in sports around the world. Without Own The Podium and similar programs supporting our athletes, Canadian results may not be what they were in 2014, even for sports in which we are known or expected to dominate.

In the end, saying the 25 medals won in 2014 is a much better performance than the 5 medals won in 1988 is short-sighted and insulting to the Calgary team. Taking everything into consideration, the two team performances are quite similar and both quite impressive.