NPR logo The Medals Count

The Medals Count

The most common word used by reporters to characterize the showing of Team USA at the Olympics is "disappointing:" There's plenty that seems to support that description: the men's hockey team bounced before the medal rounds, sulky Bode Miller zero for four on the slopes, snowboarder Lindsey Jacobellis giving away a sure gold after botching a showoff move at the end of her race. Not very cheery if you're rooting for American athletes.

But has the team's performance really been disappointing? With 20 medals so far, second only to Germany, the U.S. has already reached its second highest total ever at the Winter Games. For comparison's sake, here's the U.S. medal tally from recent Winter Olympics: 1984 - Sarajevo (8); 1988 - Calgary (6); 1992 - Albertville (11); 1994 - Lillehammer (13); and 1998 - Nagano (13).

The one big exception was 2002, when the games were held on home turf in Salt Lake City. The U.S. won 34 medals. An outsized medal harvest is typical for the host country. After a country hosts the games, the medal count normally plummets at the subsequent Olympics. The U.S. tally will be down from Salt Lake City, but not disastrously so. Let's say conservatively that the U.S. wins two more medals in Turin for a total of 22. That would be a fall of 35 percent from Salt Lake City. Not good, but somewhat better than the average drop of 41 percent after a country hosts the Winter Olympics. Maybe second-best Winter Olympics ever isn't the stuff of headlines, but it's a stretch to dismiss such a showing as disappointing.

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You might be thinking: Why should anyone care about medal counts anyway? Aren't chauvinistic tallies of prize hardware contrary to the Olympic spirit? These are frequent criticisms of national medal tallies, and they're legitimate ones. But for better or worse, medal tallies have an impact on the most important people at the Olympics: the athletes. If a country does well, it is more committed emotionally and financially to Olympic training programs. Corporate sponsors are more generous with support when home country athletes win gold, silver and bronze.

What is notable about the U.S. medal count is how concentrated it is in two events: snowboarding and speedskating. Thirteen of the 19 U.S. medals come from those two sports. What U.S. snowboarding and speedskating have in common are crossover athletes. Gold medal snowboarder Shaun White is also a professional skateboarder; several of the top American speedskaters got their start as inline skaters. Maybe Americans don't have winter sport in their blood like the Norwegians or the Austrians. But we're adaptable. If it's happening on wheels we'll find a way to make it work on ice or snow.

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