How Canada's Plans to "Own the Podium" Failed

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

This year at the 2010 winter Olympics, Canada made moves to shed its humble image just a bit with a program they titled "Own the Podium." China was successful with a similar program called "Project 119" during their 2008 Olympic hosting, in part because of their willingness to invest heavily in relatively unpopular, but highly medalled categories.

But, Canada has largely failed to win medals, and Nate Silver suggests it has to do with their investment strategy. A quick graph illustrates this nicely:

Canada has over-invested (relative to the medal count) in its "heritage" sports like curling and hockey and under-invested in sports like biathlon and cross-country skiing -- sports that would be good targets both because they are medal-rich and because they are not professionalized.

You might expect to see an investment strategy based on those two criteria:
  • High medal density: each dollar spent will increase the odds of winning several medals at once
  • Lack of professional financial support: each marginal dollar spent will have a greater impact

That's just not what we see in the graph. Instead, it appears that they're just trying to avoid the embarrassment of losing in their traditional areas of strength. Ironically, by setting less amitious objectives, Canada increased the chance that it could all go sideways with a single loss.

It looks like "Own the Podium" was more about avoiding embarrassment than dominating the competition. How Canadian.


#32 February 23, 2010 at 4:40 PM  

If they had the data (via some sort of preliminary Nate Silver projection), they might have invested based on the talent available at the time the investment decisions were made.

There's also probably a minimum amount you have to spend to even field a team, and that figure is different for different sports (e.g. I imagine hockey is more expensive than x-country).

You'd (ideally) need to look at marginal spending per marginal % increase in medal likelihood, right?

Certainly you'd combine that with medal density, too.

Steve P. Davis February 25, 2010 at 2:58 PM  

On the available talent issue, I agree, but they started the program in 2005 -- plenty of time for the $ to create prospects.

Minimum amount to field a team is pretty low -- check out their 2006 v. 2010 spending: Almost everything is marginal dollars spent.

But yes, there are tons more things they should have considered. There just doesn't seem to be any evidence that they did, even on the OTP website!

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