Should Luke Steyn defy the odds to win Zimbabwe’s first Winter Olympics medal, the Alpine skier says that the landlocked African nation should leapfrog Norway and the U.S. to lead the medals table at the Sochi Games.
“Gold medals are important, but it should be the number of medals divided by how many people are on the team,” the 20-year-old skier, who is Zimbabwe’s first and only Winter Olympian, said in an interview after finishing 57th in the giant slalom. “If I got a gold, I should win because there’s a one-to-one ratio.”
While opinions differ by country on whether success be measured by gold or total medals, whoever wins the most-high profile event usually is remembered as the champion of the Games, according to Olympic historian David Wallechinsky. The 1980 Lake Placid Games is remembered for a U.S. team of amateurs beating the Soviets in hockey, although the U.S.S.R. had the most golds and overall medals.
“Would Russia have traded gold in men’s hockey for all other medals?” asked Wallechinsky, 66. “Probably.”
Steyn, who was 21.26 seconds behind U.S. gold-medalist Ted Ligety in the giant slalom, probably won’t shake up the medals table at the 22nd Winter Games in his remaining event, the slalom. Instead, the rankings are more likely to change depending on where they are published.
After 81 events, Norway leads the gold medal standings with 10, with Germany and the U.S. in second with eight. In total medal count, Norway slips to fourth, while the U.S. moves to first with 25, ahead of Russia with 23.
Finding which nation is the true Olympic leader has been a challenge for Canadian Jennifer Ferguson and her American friend Diana Decicco, who watched France take all three medals in the men’s ski cross final at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park.
“I’m torn on it,” Ferguson, 38, who lives in Jersey City, New Jersey, said in an interview. “It’s interesting that it switches based on the country that’s displaying the results online. We’ve been looking at it every day and depending if we go on the Canadian website, the American website or the Russian website, who’s in first is different.”
Decicco, a 30-year-old from New York, said that while gold medals are important, not acknowledging the other two in a ranking system is unfair.
“I think it’s all the medals because if it’s only by gold medals it makes it seem like the other medals don’t count,” she said, while wearing a star-and-stripes winter hat. “Silver and bronze are still great achievements.”
The ranking system has troubled Slovenian Filip Flisar, who competes in ski cross and didn’t win a medal. Slovenia is tied with four countries for 12th in the gold medal table, but drops to 14th on the total number of medals.
“It’s tough,” said Flisar, who has a handlebar mustache and wears a ski helmet with dozens of tiny mustaches drawn on it. “I was thinking about it and it’s tough to find a solution that would fit everybody’s choice. Golds count for the most and that’s good for us.”
“It absolutely isn’t based on any IOC ruling,” he said. “We don’t publish the medal table ourselves. We are most interested in the individual medals ourselves.”
Austria is one of the beneficiaries of a total-medal based table as it boosts its ranking by two places to 10th. Still, ski cross racer Thomas Zangerl said winning is most important.
“Who wins the most golds is the best country,” said the 30-year-old, who didn’t progress beyond the round of eight. “Gold is optimum of what you can do at the Olympic Games, it’s the goal for every athlete.”
The U.S., whose 229-member team is the largest in Sochi, gains from a total medal count, and Americans typically use it because it makes them look the best, according to Wallechinsky, who ranks nations by gold medals in his book “The Complete Book of the Winter Olympics.”
U.S. snowboard cross athlete Nate Holland isn’t so sure it matters.
“I don’t know man,” the 35-year-old, who didn’t win a medal, said in an interview. “I think both are as equally important. It’s cool to look at both of them. They’re stats at the end of the day, what are you going to do?”
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