While a record number of countries and athletes are expected to participate in the 2018 Olympic Games in PyeongChang, South Korea, the Winter edition of the Olympics remains an exclusive event. South Korea will be just the 12th country that has ever hosted the Winter Olympics, a quadrennial event that was inaugurated in France in 1924. Only a few countries have the geographic and economic conditions to host the event, which accounts for the fact that only 6 percent of the 206 recognized National Olympic Committees have ever done so. Further, a majority of countries still do not participate in the Winter Olympic Games. At the 2014 Sochi Games, 89 countries participated. This number increases to 92 in PyeongChang (plus the “Olympic Athlete from Russia” category), which still leaves 55 percent of countries out of the Games. According to the organizing committee website, 31 nations are participating with just one athlete (18 countries) or two athletes (13 countries). Seven of the eight participating African countries will send only one or two athletes to PyeongChang, while Nigeria has the largest African delegation with three athletes. For comparison, the United States of America is participating with 242 athletes.
Many developing countries participate with athletes who grew up abroad, which distracts from the fact that there is little winter sport infrastructure in the country they are representing. For example, Bolivia will return to the Winter Olympics after not participating since 1992. This return is happening at a time when Bolivia’s only ski resort is significantly affected by global warming. One Bolivian participant will be Simon Breitfuss Kammerlander, an alpine ski racer who grew up in Austria. The other will be Finnish-born cross-country skier Timo Gronlund.
Once the Winter Olympic Games have started, the media attention, which is currently focusing on the joint Korean team and the doping allegations against Russian athletes, will shift to the question “Which country will win the Olympic Games?”, with medal rankings published in media outlets around the world as an indicator of success and failure. In all of its history, only 45 nation-states have won a medal at the Winter Games – about 22 per cent of all National Olympic Committees. For sports such as curling, ice hockey, and skating, the necessary infrastructure could potentially be established in countries without favorable winter sport conditions, but this requires costly investments that are not possible in many nations.
In Sochi 2014, 26 countries won a medal – about 30 percent of participating countries – and of these, 19 (representing 73%) were from European nations, reflecting the prevalent Eurocentrism of the Winter Olympics. The concentration of success among such a small number of nations has meant that numerous events at the Winter Games have little competition. This is the result of a strategic approach by countries, as I have argued in my recent book Success and Failure of Countries at the Olympic Games (Routledge 2016). Focusing on medal-promising sports has become a key strategy in Olympic policies around the world, and countries that do not introduce such a targeted approach are often left behind in the medal rankings. Countries usually specialize either by promoting sports where they have a historical comparative advantage or by heavily supporting new sports that were recently added to the Olympic program. An interesting example is speed skating in the Netherlands. In four speed skating events in Sochi, the Netherlands won all of the available gold, silver and bronze medals. The country also leads the all-time Winter Olympics speed skating ranking.
Since it is very difficult to compete with the Netherlands in speed skating, 2018 Winter Olympic host South Korea has successfully focused on the short track skating events. Whereas speed skating has been part of the Olympic program since 1960, short track was added in 1992. As a relatively new winter sport nation, South Korea (similar to China) has decided to focus on short track speed skating, and has so far been very successful, winning 21 of the 48 gold medals in short track since it became a medal sport (China has won 9 gold medals).
Germany, meanwhile, has largely dominated the sport of luge. About 58 percent of all medals in luge have been won by German athletes (including East Germany, West Germany, and the reunified Germany). If one includes Austria, 73 percent of all Olympic luge medals have been won by German speaking countries. Moreover, since the Italian luge team is usually recruited from South Tyrol, a majority German-speaking province in Italy, Olympic medal winning in luge is nearly an entirely ethnic German domain. Germany’s dominance, however, should not give the impression that luge is popular in the country. According to the BSD, the association responsible for luge, bobsleigh, and skeleton sports in Germany, the association has only 6,500 members in around 100 clubs in a country with a population of more than 82 million inhabitants. Hence, even within Winter Olympic powerhouses, medal events with limited global spread, such as luge, remain exclusive sports.
Danyel Reiche is an Associate Professor for Comparative Politics at the American University of Beirut in Lebanon. His research examines sport policy and politics from a comparative perspective, with recent publications on the role of developing countries in international sport, the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, and the Arab sporting boycott of Israel. His current research is on the regulation of athletic citizenship in international sports. His work has been published in journals such as International Journal of Sport Policy and Politics, The International Journal of the History of Sport, and European Sport Management Quarterly. His book Success and Failure of Countries at the Olympic Games was published with Routledge in 2016.