Ask and Nate Silver delivers.
A Fourth-Place Medal post two weeks ago joked, "Projecting Olympic medal counts has become to sports what predicting electoral college totals is to political junkies every four years. We need Nate Silver to come up with a way that blows everyone out of the water."
It turns out that Silver, the statistician and writer of FiveThirtyEighty fame, was working on a way to project final Olympic medal standings. The same wickedly sharp mind that nailed 49 of 50 states in the 2008 U.S. presidential election has Canada on pace to win the most gold medals at the Olympics.
Entering Day 5 action at the Games, Canada is projected to win the most golds, 12.8, along with 32.6 total medals, which would quote-unquote tie the U.S.
Silver explained his methodology in a post on Monday.
What I've done is to compile the projected medal winners in the 86 Winter Olympic disciplines from
five sixnine sources that forecasted individual winners; these are the Associated Press, USA Today, Sports Illustrated, McClatchy-Tribune, Examiner.com, Canwest, and (for some events only) ESPN.com and betting odds at Ladbrokes and bwin. Nothing terribly fancy here: I've taken a simple mean of the number of medals that each country was expected to win in each discipline, as averaged across the nine sources.
For the events in which medals have been awarded thus far, I've then compared the projected medal winners against the actual ones.
It does affirm that Canadians should resist hitting the panic button, since gold medals start to pour in later on in the Olympics. Whether it will indeed blow everyone out of the water is what remains to be seen.
The twist is this mathlete vs. athlete drama is that Silver is aggregating media projections and seeing if countries are ahead of schedule.
It is easy to see why that might be a question. Canada would already have three gold medals if the AP predictions had proved true. Jennifer Heil and Manuel Osborne-Paradis were picked to win their events. Charles Hamelin, who was down for a silver in men's 1,500-meter short-track speed kating, did not even reach the final.
An interesting mathematical exercise, but it's entirely based on a highly questionable premise: that if a small sample of one country's team does better than anticipated, that constitutes an indication that the entire team is stronger than anticipated, by about the same factor. There are many, many reasons for one or two athletes to outperform their expectations, and most of those reasons have nothing to do with the overall strength of their national teams.
So really, this might all rest on believing athletes' chances of winning are helped if their compatriots have won.
As the commercials say: Do you believe? There has to be room for a little faith as a sports fan. That's why the hats and shirts they're selling in Canada say "Believe," not "Know."