Media | Sports

March 1, 2006

Grading Olympic Predictions

Gelf reviews several publications' pre-Torino medal predictions and finds—suprisingly—that the US Team met the pundits' expectations.

David Goldenberg

Despite what you’re hearing, the performance by American athletes at the Torino Games wasn’t that unexpected. Sure, there were a few slip-ups along the way, but by and large the US Olympic Team performed about as well as most pundits predicted it would. Was Bode Miller’s failure to collect multiple medals really that surprising? Not to those in the know. That collective groan about the failure of the men’s hockey team to win medals? It’s a consequence of hype—none of the experts thought the Americans would make the podium.

Bode Miller
Despite the media buildup, many pundits predicted Bode Miller would perform poorly in Torino.
And this isn’t just people looking back on the Games with 20/20 hindsight. Gelf compared the pre-Torino medal prediction lists for Sports Illustrated, USA Today, the Associated Press, the Rocky Mountain News, and the Ottawa Sun to the actual results, and found that most of these writers were able to see past the PR buildup and come up with a pretty accurate picture of what would take place in Torino. (Click here to download Gelf's Excel file with the combined data.)

Though almost all of the lists overpredicted the number of medals the team would take home, the publications were, on average, right on about the number of times the US national anthem would be played at the Games. Brian Cazeneuve, who predicted the medalists for Sports Illustrated, tells Gelf he was careful not to give favoritism to US athletes. (In fact, he predicted they would take home only five golds.) “I didn't really pick medals based on how I thought the US, or any other country, would do,” Cazeneuve said in an email. “Essentially, each time I do this, I go event-by-event, talk to at least two specialists (athletes, coaches, officials or journalists who cover the sport fulltime, one of whom must be from abroad), and then I pore over results from the last year and from major competitions from previous years. Usually, this is a two-to-three week process and entails a hefty international phone bill. I'm careful not to overpick the Americans, but I don't count up who I've picked to win what until after I'm done.”

The US won 25 medals in Torino, well short of the 43 that the AP predicted (a number Newsweek's Bret Begun called out as ridiculous before the Games began) and narrowly shy of the 30, 31, 30, and 31 predicted by Sports Illustrated, USA Today, the Rocky Mountain News, and the Ottawa Sun, respectively. (Though they didn’t break down their guesses by individuals, the editorial team at the Rocky Mountain News was the only publication Gelf could find that compared their predictions to the actual results.)

Vicki Michaelis, the Olympics reporter for USA Today who compiled that paper’s predictions (and correctly guessed that the US would take home nine golds), gives one reason for the high medal projections by US reporters. “I wouldn't attribute that to subconscious patriotism but rather to the weighted familiarity that U.S. reporters have with US athletes as opposed to foreign athletes,” she told Gelf in an email. “If you have a toss-up situation between a US athlete and a foreign athlete when picking medals, you're more likely to go with the athlete whose performance history you know better. More often than not, that's the US athlete.”

Though the mediocre performance of the skiers of the US Alpine Team—dubbed by their promoters as “The Best in the World—was certainly one reason for the pundits’ overestimation of the medal count (they predicted, on average, the US would get five; the team ended up with two), Bode Miller was only part of the problem. While the AP predicted Miller would take three medals, Sports Illustrated and USA Today predicted he would garner but a measly silver in the Combined event. “I don't think Bode's performance at the Games should have been considered a disappointment, or a surprise,” USA Today’s Michaelis tells Gelf. “He won the World Cup overall title last season, not this season. This season, he hadn't done much besides make controversial comments and downplay the Olympics. Anyone who thought he was going to pick up multiple medals wasn't paying close enough attention.”

“If you looked at Bode's performances, event-by-event, there were simply other people having better years than he was,” adds SI’s Cazeneuve. “I didn't buy his assertion that he would be on his game once the Olympics started because it's hard, even for a great skier like Bode, to turn things on and off as he chooses. Remember how many other skiers are out there trying to do the same thing.”

Indeed, if we’re going to be frustrated by Miller’s performance, we should also be disappointed with some other American skiers. All of the pundits predicted medals from Daron Rahlves and Linsey Kildow as well, and they didn’t produce either. (Yes, Kildow fell and it was heroic that she even continued to compete. But she didn’t get any hardware.)

Begun’s pre-Olympic worry in Newsweek that the ski team’s hyperbolic motto would merely serve as bulletin-board fodder for the real best team—the Austrians—proved true. Indeed, Hermann Maier openly mocked the US team by shouting the motto from the podium as he collected one of Austria’s nine alpine medals (Boston Globe).

But where the US really lost ground was in its one-medal performance in the sliding events: Bobsled, luge, and skeleton. On average, the pundits picked the US to pick up more than four medals. (The ever-optimistic AP guessed seven, while Cazeneuve correctly guessed one.) Granted, part of that was due to the late disqualification of skeletoner Zach Lund, but all of the pundits predicted driver Todd Hays would pick up at least a medal in the two- or four-man bobsled races. Michaelis suggests that Hays’s poor performances (he finished 7th in both) could be explained by his severe foot injury on the Olympic Track last year.

Otherwise, the team acquitted itself nicely. The snowboarders slightly overperformed (7 versus 5.6 predicted) and the short and longtrack skating teams slightly underperformed (10 versus 10.8 predicted). Though much was made of Chad Hendrick’s quest to tie Eric Heiden’s record of 5 longtrack gold medals, none of the pundits thought he would get more than four medals of any color; he ended up with one of each color.

And, as predicted by every publication other than the AP (which needs to seriously rethink its prediction process), the US was shut out of all of the ski-jumping, cross-country skiing, and biathlon events.

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Article by David Goldenberg

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