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Despite the political controversy surrounding this year’s Winter Olympics Games in Beijing and the overall declining popularity of this quadrennial sporting event in the last decade or two, it is interesting to note how this quadrennial event still manages to captivate the world. Unlike the Summer Olympics, which features an extensive collection of sports that can be practiced in all climates and at all budgets, only a select group of countries located in regions experiencing cold climates producing snow and ice as well as possessing the financial means to participate in the expensive sports that require specialized training and equipment are involved in this event.

This study covered the results of countries that have placed medals in the olympiads:

1998   Nagano, Japan
2002   Salt Lake City, USA
2006   Turin, Italy
2010   Vancouver, Canada
2014   Sochi, Russia
2018   Pyeongchang, South Korea
2022   Beijing, China

It divides the events into four main categories:

  1. Sledding (bobsleigh, luge, skeleton)
  2. Skating (long-track, short-track)
  3. Skiing (alpine, biathlon, cross country,  jumping, Nordic combined)
  4. Snowboarding

excludes the following sports, due to the subjective nature of their scoring and/or limited participation among countries:

  • Curling
  • Figure skating / ice dancing
  • Freestyle skiing
  • Ice hockey

In order to produce athletes for winning medals in international sports, a country needs a large population to create that pool of candidates to train. However, such training is expensive, particularly for winter sports, and therefore a country needs to be financially robust in order to fund such non-critical activities designed more for national pride. A high GDP per capita (nominal), although not a perfect measure of a nation’s financial wellbeing, is still a strong indicator for measuring that.

The More the Merrier?

That said, the most populous countries that have won medals in the Winter Olympics from 1998 to 2022 are:

Note: GDP per Capita is USD

Money Talks?

The most affluent countries that have won medals during that period are:

Note: GDP per Capita in USD

The Mightiest of Them All

As can be observed from the prior two charts, densely populated countries such as China and Japan do not necessarily produce the highest volume of talent, and wealthy countries such as Denmark barely hang on by a thread. On the other hand, sparsely populated countries such as Norway dominate the Winter Olympic games as well as financially struggling countries such as Russia field many champions. Synthesizing these two factors, here are the routine top performers from 1998 until now:

Note: GDP per Capita in USD

The Paradoxes

Both large populations and high affluence work in the favor of Germany and the United States; yet Norway, Canada, and Russia prove despite either small populations or lower incomes, that other intrinsic factors such as climate and hence winter sports culture can have a huge impact. This could even apply to Germany punching well above its weight in comparison to the larger and wealthier United States.

The Big Picture

Now that the basic trends have already been called out, now it is time to visualize the intersection of population and affluence towards producing talent in the Winter Olympics. However, first it is important to see which correlation is stronger in order to produce a more meaningful analysis.

Men vs Money (or Means)

Although the correlations between population and wealth are rather weak, due to the limited geographic limits where winter sports can be regularly practiced, ultimately money does talk in determining which countries are able to advance their human resources further:

Battle of the Nations

There can be nine classifications identified among the level of performance with respect to the potentil budget available for a nation’s winter sports program, as illustrated on this plot:

  1. High Budget, High Performance
    (United States)
  2. Moderate Budget, High Performance
    (Canada, Germany, Norway)
  3. Low Budget, High Performance
  4. High Budget, Moderate Performance
  5. Moderate Budget, Moderate Performance
    (Austria, France, Netherlands, Sweden)
  6. Low Budget, Moderate Performance
    (China, Italy)
  7. High Budget, Low Performance
  8. Moderate Budget, Low Performance
    (Japan, South Korea, Oceania, select European countries)
  9. Low Budget, Low Performance
    (Balkan countries, Eastern Europe, Kazakhstan, Spain)

While it is understandable that the small populations of Switzerland and Denmark do not produce the same number of candidates that would be produced in the United States, it is puzzling why they perform worse compared to other German-speaking or Scandinavian countries. Canada, Germany, and Norway have the advantages of favorable climates for winter sports and therefore a cultural practice surrounding them. Russia has great potential to surpass all other countries if it had better finances. The Netherlands has a good winter sports program, yet for some reason that of neighboring Belgium can barely hold a candle to it. South Korea, despite having a lower GDP per capita compared to Japan, far surpasses its neighbor and has a high potential to advance further. Likewise, China has a potential to excel in winter sports as its economy grows and the overall wellbeing of its citizens allow for those pursuits. It is puzzling how Australia and  New Zealand manage to win medals despite how suboptimal their climates are for winter sports, but they still manage to do so. Having a high disposable income helps, too.

Battle of the Continents

Due to climate and culture, winter sports remain a largely European pursuit. Although the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand possess high wealth; they lack the ideal conditions for developing the superior talent of Europe. Likewise, East Asia has a large population, but lacks the overall climate and disposable income to engage in winter sports more frequently:

Despite the overwhelming dominance that Europeans have in winter sports, North Americans, East Asians, and those Down Under are still winning medals. Now it’s time to see where the strengths in these non-European participants lie in order to see which types of events carry great potential to grow participation among these and more non-Europeans in winter sports in the future.

Oh What Fun it is to Ride …

Sledding continues to remain a predominantly European-dominated (particularly German-speaking) event category, with three-quarters of medals claimed by that region while the remaining are mostly lapped up by Americans and Canadians:

Asian Blades

While Europeans claim about half of all medals in speed skating, they are primarily in the long-track events. East Asians have made a dominant stride particularly in short-track events with South Korea taking the exceptional lead in this category. Due to the indoor nature of this sport, it is possible to practice it anywhere such a skating rink can be built, which possibly explains its popularity in the United States and Canada, with notable participation by athletes of non-white background as well.

That Fancy European Thing

When I first started learning to ski in 2010, I was excited to discuss it with my coworkers at my job in Pennsylvania at that time. Apparently, most of them preferred snowboarding, claiming that skiing is “that fancy European thing” that their parents did. Predictably enough, skiing is virtually in the hands of Europeans, possibly explaining why American champion skiers achieve such as Lindsey Vonn achieve such widespread celebrity status for doing statistically the unthinkable.

American Boards

While watching the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games on television by myself in my Pennsylvania apartment at that time, I decided to chat online with other friends about it out of boredom. One of them happened to be a sports buff who mainly follows baseball but provides insight on all else. He made the statement, “when Americans suck at sports, they just invent their own”. Surfing is a traditional American pastime, whether it’s ocean surfing, sidewalk surfing (skateboarding), or just web surfing. That is the reason 1998 was chosen as the year to begin this study, since that was the first olympiad in which snowboarding was an official event. Ever since then, even though half of the medals are still won by Europeans, Americans and Canadians have been crushing it for the most part as well it being the category of events that Australians and Kiwis have been demonstrating their talents.

There have been major trends happening in the last half of the century that have been defining what direction the world is headed towards. Europe is mostly aging and having its traditional populations replaced by immigrants from warmer climates not accustomed to winter sports. North America and Oceania continue to strong economic engines that attract the best and brightest who are interested in expensive pursuits as well. East Asia has been economically expanding rapidly and giving rise to a class of professionals with disposable incomes to spend on traveling, luxury goods, and of course, winter sports.

For the moment, Europeans have been dominating the medal counts in the Winter Olympics:

However, a greater share of the the population of the countries that have been winning medals at the Winter Olympics are located in East Asia:

On top of that, both the East Asian and North American countries that win medals in the Winter Games account for an overwhelmingly high share of the global economy:

Therefore, while winter sports have been long established within Europe and and North America, East Asian represents a large potential market for expanding participation in them. In fact, of the past six olympiads, three of them have been hosted in Asian countries. Speed skating holds the possibility of expanding the participation and interest in the Winter Olympics further beyond the traditional locus of Western and Northern Hemisphere countries to elsewhere in Asia and possibly Latin America and Africa. Even a small number of countries in South America, South Asia and southern Africa actually do have places to ski and snowboard and could be developed as potential markets for winter sports equipment and instruction. It is also critical for European countries to sustain their winter sports traditions and welcome newcomers from countries without them into the fold to retain their dominance.

Historic Olympic Medal Count (1896 – 2022) [Kaggle]

Population, Total [World Bank]

GDP, Current US$ [World Bank]

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