Sochi 2014: Is it fair to compare Olympics?

Two pictures: One of the 2014 British bobsleigh team, the other of the 1924 team

Is it reasonable to compare "record" Winter Olympics medal tallies with those from previous games, asks BBC Head of Statistics Anthony Reuben.

At the start of the Winter Olympics, the records being discussed mostly involved the unprecedented cost of the games.

Now we're nearing the end, and the talk is turning to record medal hauls.

Team GB will at least match its record medal haul, which came at the first Winter Games in Chamonix in 1924.

Norway has 21 medals so far, which beats its 17 medals from the 1924 games (and not for the first time).

But is it reasonable to compare Sochi in 2014 with Chamonix in 1924?

The Chamonix games had only 16 events, while Sochi has 98 events - there are more than six times as many opportunities to win medals today as there were 90 years ago.

Norway's achievement in 1924 of winning more than one third of all the available medals is a degree of dominance you could not imagine happening nowadays.

Indeed, the extraordinary recent growth in the number of events has led some to talk of medal inflation.

The size of the programme increased gradually for the first 60 years, getting to 39 by the time of Sarajevo in 1984.

Since then it has accelerated like a ski cross competitor coming out of the gates, with 59 events added in 30 years.

But just looking at the proportion of available medals won at a games may also not make a fair comparison.

English speed skaters training in Chamonix for the Winter Olympic Games, 16th January 1924. From left to right, B. H. Sutton, L. H. Cambridgeshire and A. E. Tibbet.
Figure skaters at the 1924 winter Olympics in Chamonix, France, 30th January 1924. Left to right: Herma Planck-Szabo of Hungary, Ethel Muckelt of Britain and Beatrix Loughran of the U.S.A. Planck-Szabo won gold, with Loughran and Muckelt taking silver and bronze respectively.
28th January 1924: The British Curling team during the Winter Olympics at Chamonix, France Speed skaters, figure skaters and the British curling team at the 1924 Winter Olympics

In 1924, there were 258 athletes competing from 16 National Olympic Committees (NOCs).

In Sochi there are 2,871 athletes - 11 times as many as at Chamonix - from 87 NOCs.

So the average number of athletes competing in each event was 16.1 in 1924, but is now up to 29.2, meaning there is considerably more competition for each medal today.

And the professionalism and funding you see in modern Olympic sport would be a bit of a shock to the enthusiastic amateurs of 1924.

So talk of medal inflation and "easy" medals is probably misplaced.

Graphic comparing 1924 and 2014 Olympics

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