Olympic medal predictions: U.S. isn't the favorite to win the most golds

The United States is likely to miss out on the top spot in the Winter Olympics medal table in Sochi, with a surprising name tipped to claim first place.

A combination of odds offered by European bookmakers, Yahoo Sports' own picks and statistics-based data from sports analysis company Infostrada all suggests Norway is the favorite to climb the podium most often between Feb. 7-23.

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While experts believe the U.S. could collect a haul of up to 16 gold and 29 overall medals, Norwegian competitors are expected to secure 37 total pieces of hardware, while also claiming 14 golds.

Norway's advantage lies in the fact that its two strongest and most dominant sports – cross-country skiing and biathlon – both offer a high number of opportunities for medals. Cross-country has 10 medal events, many featuring multiple Norwegian athletes, while biathlon has 11.

"The United States' medals are usually much more spread out and we expect it to be the same this time around," said Simon Gleave, head of analysis for Infostrada. The Dutch company compiled a "Virtual Medal Table" before the London Summer Games in 2012, which enjoyed a high level of accuracy, and "have repeated it for Sochi.

"According to our predictor, Norway is going to win 17 medals in cross country and another 11 in biathlon, which obviously gives them a huge advantage in the overall table," Gleave added.

Yahoo Sports predicts the U.S. will win 33 medals total: 13 gold, 11 silver, nine bronze; Infostrada predicts 29 total medals for the U.S.: 16 gold, nine silver, four bronze.

The U.S. challenge was also hurt by the absence of skiing superstar Lindsey Vonn, who was tabbed for a gold and a silver by Infostrada before being forced to withdraw from the Olympics because of injury.

London-based oddsmaker Ladbrokes has Norway at a 1:1 favorite to win the medal race, although it is worth noting that in the U.K., like virtually every country outside of America, the count is done by most golds, rather than most total medals.

"The odds would be affected to a degree but it is highly unlikely we would see a new name at the head of the list," spokesman Alex Donohue said via email, referring to the differing methods of calculating the winning nation. "We might see slightly different odds, but that's about it. Norway is a strong favorite."

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Ladbrokes has the U.S. as second favorite at 3.5:1, followed by Germany 5.5:1, Russia 7:1 and Canada 12:1.

By Yahoo Sports' selections, the U.S. will win golds across a variety of sports, with five coming from freestyle skiing, two from each of alpine skiing and bobsled, and one from figure skating, long track speedskating, women's hockey and snowboarding.

Despite the Olympic audience's long-standing obsession with medal counts, there has never been an official table and the International Olympic Committee bestows no prize to the "champion" nation.

The rivalry may have started back at the 1908 Olympics in London, when J.E. Sullivan – a New Yorker who was a pivotal figure in the early modern Olympic movement – eagerly stirred up nationalistic pride back home by delivering sensationalized reports of any controversy between the Americans and host nation Great Britain.

Sullivan proposed a points system that would reward each gold medal with five points, with three for a silver and one for bronze. It didn't catch on, but the concept of national Olympic rivalry did.

However, according to renowned Olympic historian David Wallechinsky, Americans are opportunistic when it comes to deciding which nation has emerged superior from a Summer or Winter Games.

"From the U.S. perspective, if we win the most gold medals then that's the way we're going to look at the medal table," Wallechinsky said. "If we don't win the most gold medals but we win the most total medals, that's the way we're going to look at the medal table. Whatever works, that's what we're looking at. When the Olympics were in Beijing, China, all they cared about was gold medals."

The competition between countries has even taken on political importance at different times, especially during the Cold War and before the fall of the Berlin Wall, with East Germany's leaders determined to outshine West Germany.

Nowadays the IOC includes medal tallies in some of its official publications, but still does not give it formal recognition.

In Vancouver, the U.S. claimed the most medals for the second time in its Winter Olympics history and the first time since 1932, while breaking Germany's streak of three straight Games at the top. Norway last headed the table when it hosted the Lillehammer Games in 1994, but also did so for five of the first six Winter Olympics ever staged.

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