The Winter Olympics: The Last Place Where Tiny, Cold Countries Are Still Global Powers

How It Works
Feb. 7 2014 3:08 PM

The Winter Olympics: The Last Place Where Tiny, Cold Countries Are Still Global Powers

The last global venue where Austria is a major power since 1918.

Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

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 with their summer counterparts, they are increasingly out of step with the current geopolitical balance of the world.

Joshua Keating Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

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 its 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 games 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—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 of 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. 

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 



More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

iOS 8 Comes Out Today. Do Not Put It on Your iPhone 4S.

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

Three Talented Actresses in Three Terrible New Shows

The Human Need to Find Connections in Everything

It’s the source of creativity and delusions. It can harm us more than it helps us.


Happy Constitution Day!

Too bad it’s almost certainly unconstitutional.

The Ungodly Horror of Having a Bug Crawl Into Your Ear and Scratch Away at Your Eardrum

My Father Was James Brown. I Watched Him Beat My Mother. Then I Married Someone Like Him.

  News & Politics
Sept. 17 2014 12:02 PM Here It Is: The Flimsiest Campaign Attack Ad of 2014, Which Won’t Stop Running
Business Insider
Sept. 17 2014 1:36 PM Nate Silver Versus Princeton Professor: Who Has the Right Models?
Sept. 17 2014 1:59 PM Ask a Homo: Secret Ally Codes 
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 17 2014 1:26 PM Hey CBS, Rihanna Is Exactly Who I Want to See on My TV Before NFL Games
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 17 2014 9:37 AM Is Slate Too Liberal?  A members-only open thread.
Brow Beat
Sept. 17 2014 1:01 PM A Rare, Very Unusual Interview With Michael Jackson, Animated
Future Tense
Sept. 17 2014 12:35 PM IOS 8 Comes Out Today. Do Not Put It on Your iPhone 4S.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 17 2014 11:18 AM A Bridge Across the Sky
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.