The Winter Olympics: The last place where tiny cold countries are still global powers

SlateFebruary 10, 2014 

— Slate has reposted Reihan Salam’s excellent screed from eight years ago against the “lily-white Winter Olympics.” But in addition to not exactly reflecting America’s racial makeup, the Winter Olympics are odd for another reason: compared to their summer counterparts they are increasingly out of step with the current geopolitical balance of the world.

Here are the top 10 countries in the medal count from the last summer games in London: The United States, China, Russia, Great Britain, Germany, Japan, Australia, France, South Korea, Italy. All but Australia and South Korea are also among the world’s top 10 in nominal GDP, and they’re not too far out of it.

In other words, the summer Olympics are a pretty good proxy for global geopolitical and economic power, to the extent that economists have built fairly accurate models for predicting a country’s medal haul based solely on the size of their population and GDP. There are some quirks. Communist countries and countries with a history of communism tend to outperform the predictions and India is a notable exception. But in general if you’re a big country with a big economy, you will win a lot of medals at the Olympics.

This makes logical sense. The larger your population, the greater the likelihood of finding people with the physical gifts needed to be an Olympic athlete and the larger the economy, the more resources you can devote to preparing them.

But the Winter Games are a different story. The U.S., Germany, Russia, China and France still cracked the top 10 in Vancouver, but so did much smaller countries like Austria, Sweden and all-time winter medal champ Norway. The top 20 included Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Finland and Belarus.

The balance of power at the Winter Olympics, in other words, still looks much more 20th century, dominated by Europe, North America, and a handful of East Asian countries. These groups still make up the majority of the medalists at the summer games too, of course, but places like Brazil, Iran, Kenya, and Jamaica can bring home respectable numbers of medals – and European dominance over the ganes has been slipping over the years.

By contrast, the only countries outside of Europe, North America and the East Asian tigers to take home even a single medal in Vancouver were Australia and Kazakhstan – a part of the former Soviet Union.

The arrival of China, as always, has been one disruptor. The People’s Republic didn’t even compete at the games until 1980 and didn’t medal until 1992, but was seventh on the medal count last time.

But in general, the last couple centuries were an age in which small, cold countries enjoyed outsized political and economic dominance in the world. That era may be coming to a close, but the winter Olympics will probably be one of the last vestiges of it.

Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international news, social science and related topics. He was previously an editor at Foreign Policy magazine.

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