The Winter Olympics Are A Wealthy Countries’ Club

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When “Cool Runnings” hit the silver screen in 1993, American audiences were captivated by the feel-good story of Jamaica — a tropical country better known for its sprinting prowess — improbably sending its first bobsled team to compete in the 1988 Calgary Olympics. And though Jamaica ultimately crashed out of the competition that winter, the world was enamored with the underdog. The movie memorably ends with an epilogue explaining that four years later, the team “returned to the Olympics … as equals.”

But the film’s coda — along with much of the rest of it — is more Hollywood mystique than reality. The Jamaican bobsled team’s biggest achievements were cultural rather than sleigh-bound. The four-man team that competed in 1992 managed to finish but placed just 25th, and no Jamaican competing in bobsledding has finished in the top 10 of a medal event. And though the four-man team also competed in 1994 and 1998, it then went 24 years before qualifying again — for this year’s Beijing Games. The “fish out of water” quality that made the Jamaican team so beloved has also been one of the structural impediments to the team’s success.

That the Olympics are inherently unequal is no secret, but Winter Olympic sports are even more unequal and exclusive than Summer disciplines. From 1994 to 2018, 35 countries won at least one medal at the Winter Olympics, and those countries’ average per-capita gross domestic product per medal won was a robust $38,281, or roughly 5.5 times that of Jamaica’s average figure from 1994 to 2018. If we look at the average per-capita GDP “cost” of a medal in every Olympic discipline, bobsled (or bobsleigh, in Olympic parlance) was right at the median:

Wealthy countries have dominated curling

Winter Olympic disciplines by average cost per medal according to the medal-winning countries’ per-capita gross domestic product, 1994-2018

Discipline Tot. medals Tot. Medal Money Avg. Cost/Medal
Curling 39 $1,736,856 $44,535
Nordic combined 57 2,499,651 43,854
Snowboarding 120 5,110,906 42,591
Alpine skiing 214 9,081,627 42,438
Ski jumping 69 2,883,443 41,789
Cross-country skiing 241 9,736,896 40,402
Bobsleigh 58 2,295,401 39,576
Skeleton 30 1,145,808 38,194
Ice hockey 39 1,484,629 38,067
Speed skating 240 9,073,522 37,806
Freestyle skiing 126 4,760,888 37,785
Biathlon 184 6,878,180 37,381
Luge 69 2,516,903 36,477
Short track speedskating 156 4,505,901 28,884
Figure skating 90 2,592,085 28,801

Per-capita GDP is adjusted for inflation and price differences between countries, and measured in 2011 prices. Country GDP data is from Our World in Data, except for Liechtenstein’s 2018 GDP, which is from the World Bank.

Sources: Olympedia, Our world in data, World Bank

In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find many countries from even the global middle class with winter medals to their names, regardless of the sport. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, countries with a per-capita GDP of less than $10,000 have won just 106 of the 1,732 medals awarded — or 6 percent. And most of those went to China, which was rapidly developing throughout the 1990s, and Russia:

China won more medals as its economy grew

Countries by lowest per-capita GDP to win a medal at the Winter Olympics, with their total medals in those Games

Country Year Tot. Medals Disciplines GDP per capita
China 1994 3 FSK, SSK, STK $3,730
China 1998 8 FSK, SSK, STK 4,310
Ukraine 1998 1 BTH 4,640
Uzbekistan 1994 1 FRS 4,744
China 2002 8 FSK, STK 5,343
Ukraine 1994 2 BTH, FSK 5,585
China 2006 11 FRS, FSK, SSK, STK 7,271
Belarus 1994 2 BTH, SSK 7,932
Kazakhstan 1998 2 CCS, SSK 8,089
Kazakhstan 1994 3 CCS 8,179
Bulgaria 1998 1 BTH 8,322
Belarus 1998 2 BTH, FRS 8,482
Russia 1998 19 ALP, BTH, CCS, FSK, IHO, NCB 8,558
Russia 1994 23 ALP, BTH, CCS, FSK, FRS, SSK 8,744
Ukraine 2006 2 BTH, FSK 9,356

Per-capita GDP is given for each year, measured in 2011 international dollars and adjusted for inflation and price differences between countries.

Disciplines are alpine skiing (ALP), biathlon (BTH), cross-country skiing (CCS), figure skating (FSK), freestyle skiing (FRS), ice hockey (IHO), Nordic combined (NCB), speed skating (SSK) and short-track speedskating (STK).

Sources: Olympedia, Our World in Data

Of course, as the table above displays, per-capita GDP is an imperfect analog to Olympic success. Some research has shown that total GDP and population are just as important in determining Summer Olympic success as per-capita GDP; to that point, China’s roaring success came as its economy grew leaps and bounds over the past three decades, even though its per-capita GDP still lags behind that of most other medal-winning countries. And Russia, whose economy has stagnated in recent years and whose per-capita GDP lags behind that of most dominant Olympic nations, has kept piling up medals, perhaps in part due to its sheer size, the legacy of the Olympics as a Cold War proxy and its history of state-sponsored doping.

But every once in a while, athletes from poorer, smaller countries manage to defy the odds — even if they don’t fundamentally alter the narrative of wealthier countries hoarding Olympic gold. Lina Cheryazova of Uzbekistan was the first woman to earn an Olympic gold medal in the aerial skiing event when it debuted as a medal event in 1994, executing a triple flip to win by less than a point in Lillehammer. Cheryazova, who died in 2019, remains the only athlete to win a Winter Olympics medal for Uzbekistan, which has zero medals in Beijing and is currently projected by FiveThirtyEight’s medal tracker to not improve on that figure.

There doesn’t appear to be much of a chance of more Cheryazovas emerging in Beijing. So far, 28 Olympic countries have won at least one medal out of 91 participating National Olympic Committees, and there have been zero first-time victors. We can see that the countries that arrived in Beijing with the greatest monetary disadvantages in specific sports are those that have never medaled in the sport before, and the biggest climb — literal and metaphorical — came in alpine skiing, which had the fourth-highest cost per medal from 1994 to 2018:

Alpine skiing has the biggest financial climb

Countries in the 2022 Winter Olympics by the biggest difference between their per-capita GDP and the cost per medal in the disciplines in which they’re competing

Country Discipline GDP per capita Avg. cost/ medal Diff.
Eritrea Alpine skiing $643 $42,438 $-41,795
East Timor Alpine skiing 1,249 42,438 -41,188
Madagascar Alpine skiing 1,428 42,438 -41,010
Haiti Alpine skiing 1,729 42,438 -40,708
Ghana Alpine skiing 4,267 42,438 -38,170
Kosovo Alpine skiing 4,384 42,438 -38,053
Kyrgyzstan Alpine skiing 5,177 42,438 -37,261
Pakistan Alpine skiing 5,510 42,438 -36,927
Bolivia Alpine skiing 6,696 42,438 -35,742
India Alpine skiing 6,807 42,438 -35,631
Jamaica Alpine skiing 7,273 42,438 -35,165
Nigeria Cross-country skiing 5,238 40,402 -35,164
Philippines Alpine skiing 8,139 42,438 -34,298
Ukraine Nordic combined 9,813 43,854 -34,040
Morocco Alpine skiing 8,451 42,438 -33,986

Per-capita GDP displayed is from 2018 and is measured in international dollars. It’s from Our World in Data for all countries except East Timor, Kosovo and Eritrea. Per-capita GDP numbers for East Timor and Kosovo are 2018 numbers from the World Bank. Eritrea’s GDP is from 2011, the country’s latest available figure from the World Bank.

Sources: Olympedia, Our world in data, world bank

Today, the Jamaican bobsled team is back competing in Beijing, and the basic contours of the Winter Games remain the same: The team’s first events didn’t go quite as the country would have hoped. Competing in the women’s monobob medal event Monday, Jazmine Fenlator-Victorian finished 19th out of 20 competitors, while the duo of Shanwayne Stephens and Nimroy Turgott came in dead last in both heats of the two-man event later that day, almost flipping their sleigh at one point. The team has a chance at redemption in the four-man event, which starts Saturday, but as Turgott said in an interview with the PBS NewsHour last month, the goal isn’t radically different than that of the “Cool Runnings” team: to belong on the sport’s biggest stage.

“This won’t be our last Olympics, and there won’t be a next 24-years span for us to qualify again,” Turgott said. 

That sentiment is likely shared not just among Jamaicans, but among a whole host of other less wealthy countries trying to shatter the glass ceiling at the Winter Olympics. 

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