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China's COVID-19 isolation hampers medal predictions

China's COVID-19 isolation hampers medal predictions
A staff member skis down a slope during an organised media tour to the National Alpine Skiing Centre, a venue of the 2022 Winter Olympic Games, in Beijing's Yanqing district, China, Feb 5, 2021. (File photo: Reuters/Tingshu Wang)

SYDNEY: China can expect a host nation bump in the medals table at next year's Winter Olympics but predicting exactly how well they will do in Beijing is proving an unprecedented challenge for Simon Gleave and his team.

Head of sports analysis at Nielsen's Gracenote, Gleave has used results data to forecast the medals table for every Olympics since 2012 but the global health crisis has thrown a spanner in 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 for 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 told Reuters from the Netherlands.

"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 medallist 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 finessed their 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 are not, of course, nearly as strong a power in the Winter Olympics as they are at Summer Games.

They claimed a solitary gold medal through short track skater Wu Dajing in Pyeongchang in 2018 and the Gracenote forecast for Beijing sees that tally improving to four.

In total medals, China's forecast tally of six on last month's initial table was raised to eight on Wednesday (Nov 10).

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."

Source: Reuters/ng

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