China’s Winter Olympic medal forecast clouded by pandemic

China can expect a host nation bump in the medal standings at next year’s Winter Olympics, but predicting exactly how well the country will do in Beijing is proving to be an unprecedented challenge for Simon Gleave and his team.

Gleave, the head of sports analysis at Nielsen’s Gracenote, has used results data to forecast the medal table for every Olympics since 2012, but the global health crisis has thrown a wrench into the works.

While adjustments were successfully made for the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic ahead of the Tokyo Olympics this year, Gleave is now wrestling with the fact that most Chinese winter sports athletes have not competed internationally in two years.

“With China you have the double situation that they are the host nation so presumably they are going to do better than last time,” he said.

“But also, they have very little experience in winter sports, so any investments they’ve made to improve this, we just can’t see because the data isn’t there. I don’t think we’ve ever had a situation like this before.”

Gracenote uses data from previous Olympics, World Championships and World Cups to feed a statistical model that forecasts the most likely gold, silver and bronze medalist in each event.

They adjust the model for the host nation because of the heavy investment in sports development that countries usually deploy to ensure a strong showing at their own Games.

China, for example, won 32 golds and 63 total medals at the 2004 Summer Olympics but soared to the top of the table with 48 golds and a total tally of 100 medals on home soil in Beijing four years later.

In addition to the investment element, Gracenote adjusted its model after the 2012 London Olympics, when British athletes they had forecast to win minor medals walked away with golds.

“The number of medals we predicted was about right but in the number of golds, we were quite far off,” he added.

“It would be just speculation to try and work out what it is. But it is happening and that’s why we adjust for it. And it works out well.”

China is not, of course, nearly as strong a power in the Winter Olympics as it is at the Summer Games.

China claimed a just one gold medal — through short track skater Wu Dajing— in Pyeongchang in 2018 and the Gracenote forecast sees that tally improving to four in Beijing next year.

In total medals, China’s initial forecast of six last month was raised to eight on Wednesday.

Gleave is hoping to see plenty of Chinese athletes competing in the international winter sports season over the next three months before Gracenote publishes its final prediction.

“The feeling is that this is still too low and the hope is the Chinese athletes will compete in this World Cup circuit,” he said.

“Clearly, when they haven’t really done anything for two years we’re missing out on what we would normally see from the investment they have made.”

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