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:
|Discipline||Tot. medals||Tot. Medal Money||Avg. Cost/Medal|
|Short track speedskating||156||4,505,901||28,884|
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:
|Country||Year||Tot. Medals||Disciplines||GDP per capita|
|China||1994||3||FSK, SSK, STK||$3,730|
|China||1998||8||FSK, SSK, STK||4,310|
|China||2006||11||FRS, FSK, SSK, STK||7,271|
|Russia||1998||19||ALP, BTH, CCS, FSK, IHO, NCB||8,558|
|Russia||1994||23||ALP, BTH, CCS, FSK, FRS, SSK||8,744|
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:
|Country||Discipline||GDP per capita||Avg. cost/ medal||Diff.|
|East Timor||Alpine skiing||1,249||42,438||-41,188|
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.