Marcio Sanchez/AP
The downtown skyline is seen in the early morning hours at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics in Vancouver Friday.

Winter Olympics: Who will win the most medals?

Germany, Canada, and the United States will battle for overall medal title in the Winter Olympics for the foreseeable future. Watch for China to move up the ladder using the same strategy it did in Beijing.

The past two Winter Olympics have seen North America overthrow the traditional order of the medal table.

Gone are the days when the Winter Olympics were a European-only club, with countries from other continents only picking up the scraps. Famously, Canada failed to win a gold medal even in its own Winter Olympics – Calgary 1988.

That will not happen in Vancouver. Just as the Salt Lake Games catapulted the United States into the role of winter sports power, the Vancouver Games are expected to do the same for Canada.

But Canada may go one better than its southern neighbor. Despite unprecedented success during the past two Winter Games, the US has failed to unseat Germany atop the medal standings. In these Games, Canada may do it, according to many medal predictions by major sports publications and analysts.

Indeed, Vancouver in many ways will mark the cementing of the new Winter Olympic order first introduced in Salt Lake (2002) and refined in Turin (2006). The US and Canada are the kings of the Winter Olympics’ newest sports – such as snowboarding and freestyle skiing – while Europe continues to dominate the traditional winter program.

For the foreseeable future, Germany, Canada, and the United States will battle for the overall medal title in the Winter Games, with Russia and Austria close behind (though Russia could see a bump in the 2014 Games, which it will host).

Indeed, the only real mover in the medal tally is expected to be China, which is employing the same techniques it used in the Summer Olympics in its quest to rack up a record number of medals in Vancouver.

What seems clear is that, for Canada, this year will be a more than adequate atonement for Calgary.

USA Today forecasts that Canada will top the table with 34 medals (13 gold), with Germany placing second with 32 (eight gold), and the US third with 25 (nine gold).

• Not surprisingly the Canadian Press is even more bullish, predicting that Canada will finish first with 37 medals.

• Economist Daniel Johnson, whose economic and demographic data have predicted the medal table of the past five Olympic Games with greater than 90 percent accuracy, puts Canada first with 27 medals and the US second with 26.

• Olympic historian David Wallechinsky has Canada winning the goal medal tally (which is the standard that the International Olympic Committee uses) with 13, but overall finishing fourth – behind Germany, the US, and Russia – with 24 total medals.

Both USA Today and Wallechinsky expect the Chinese to move up dramatically, with seven gold medals and at least 15 total medals.

Wallechinsky does offer a cautionary word, though: the Winter Olympics are more volatile than the Summer Games. Many more things can go wrong in winter sports, from changing conditions on the ski slope to a multi-skater wipeout in short track speedskating, which can create unexpected winners.

Yet the new die seems cast. Both the US and Canada used their home Olympics as an opportunity to pump millions of dollars into winter sports, and the funding has paid off dramatically.

Between 1980 and 2002, the United States never finished higher than fifth in the medal table. Between 1932 and 1992, Canada never finished higher than ninth.

Here's the recipe for success

The recipe for success in these Games will be no different from what it was in Turin, when the US and Canada finished second and third in overall medals, with just one medal separating them: rake in the medals in new sports, and supplement that with improvement in the core European sports.

That can be seen in America's top winter athletes. Shaun White and Gretchen Bleiler rule the snowboard superpipe. But Lindsey Vonn is the best alpine skier in the world and Todd Lodwick and Bill Demog could each win America's first-ever medal in Nordic combined – which combined ski jumping and cross-country skiing.

Canada shares a similar mix. Mogul skier Jennifer Heil is expected to win Canada's first gold, but the country can also lean on Kristina Groves and Christine Nesbitt in the speedskating oval.

China’s rise mirrors its rise in Beijing. It is expected to dominate sports where it has some history. Chinese women could sweep every gold in short track, and they could also sweep the medals in freestyle aerials – where their strong tradition in gymnastics serves them well.

But they are also attacking sports where the pool of strong competitors is relatively shallow, such as women’s curling.

Here are the sports where the US has the strongest chance of medaling:

Alpine skiing: women’s downhill, super-G, and combined (Lindsey Vonn); men’s giant slalom (Ted Ligety).

Freestyle skiing: moguls (Hannah Kearney or Heather McPhie).

Snowboarding: superpipe (Shaun White, Gretchen Bleiler, Hannah Teter, and Kelly Clark); snowboard-cross (Lindsey Jacobellis and Nate Holland).

Speedskating: 1000 and 1500 meters (Shani Davis and Chad Hedrick).

Short track speedskating: 1000 meters (Apolo Anton Ohno).

Nordic combined: individual and team events (Todd Lodwick and Bill Demong).

Figure skating: men’s (Evan Lysacek).

Hockey: women’s.

Bobsled: men’s (Steven Holcomb).

Mark has been covering the Olympics since 2002, making this his fifth Olympic Games. Keep up with Mark as he tweets throughout the Games.

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