By Invitation Only
Several years ago I was living in the Bay area and it was the first time in my life that I got what is infamously known as a “California Invite”. A guy from church invited me to surf with him for an upcoming the weekend. He had some snobby name, like Grant or maybe Edmund. We exchanged texts the day before. “I am pumped!” “Let’s do this!” etc. etc. I think I even watched some surfing videos. The plan was for him to pick me up. The day came and he never showed. I texted him and called him…. nothing. Like a bad date, I was stood up. I was really upset, in fact I am still upset about it. Go to hell Gramm! I recounted this story to a friend of mine living in California and he let me know that this was very typical. As I have reflected on this experience, with great resentment, I have come to realize that the invite was just a nice fake gesture – if there is such a thing. He knew I couldn’t hang. I didn’t have a wet suit. I would have probably drown on his watch (It still doesn’t change the fact that it was a d-bag move). And that is exactly like the Winter Olympics. Countries are invited, but its just a gesture. They need to have the certain qualities to actually get picked up.
The Winter Olympics is not for the world, not really. Yes, everyone is “invited”, but there are some necessary things a country needs to compete at the games (for example, snow and ice) just like I needed some things to actually go on that surf trip (to not be gullible). To illustrate the size of the Games’ party lets look at the attendee list. A total of 92 countries (when I say countries I actually mean NOC’s) were represented at the PyeongChang games this year, with almost 3,000 athletes competing across 15 sports in 102 events. At first glance these numbers are impressive, but it is much smaller compared to the Summer games. Rio had 207 countries (but! There are only 195 countries…again, see NOC) with almost 11,200 athletes competing in 34 sports in 306 events. This is almost four times as many athletes than the Winter games and three times more events. Everyone goes to the Summer games.
RSVP, but only if…
The first requirement, to be invited to the party, is to have access to snow and ice. You would be hard pressed to find a country that does well in the Olympics without this first and most obvious requirement. Looking at the final 2018 medal standings for the top ten countries below, you should notice that all of these countries meet the snow/ice criteria. I mean, I don’t feel that I need to prove to you that it snows in these places. While Australia is not listed below, they have participated in the Winter Games since 1936 and has only won 15 total medals – 3 at the most recent games. That may be surprising, but Australia isn’t all crocs and vast desert.
The second piece of competing in the Olympics is to find a niche. Norway has been able to dominate in cross-country skiing. About 32% of Norway’s all-time medals come from this event, in both men’s and women’s. There are ample opportunities to take medals; since 1964 there have been at least seven cross-country events in each game. In other words, 21 opportunities. This year there was 12 cross-country skiing events and Norway took 14 of the 37 awarded medals (ties can happen); ~38% of total opportunities. They have become specialists. Care to guess how many medals Norway won in the Summer games in 2016? Four.
As mentioned before the Germans own the luge, but they also do well in the biathlon and bobsleigh. They came away seven of the 33 medals for the biathlon and four of the nine for bobsleigh. The United States has been known to own figure skating. The Netherlands and speed skating. This kind of specialization allows smaller populations, with perhaps smaller budgets, to keep relevant. However, make no mistake, being a wealthy country doesn’t hurt your chances to compete.
Money. Most sports require equipment and it makes a difference when trying to medal. Additionally, the Winter Olympics require facilities. Wether its a halfpipe, an ice rink, or a massive hill with snow on it, all of the sports need upkeep and creation.
That isn’t to mention the amount of funding needed to dope your athletes to win. Don’t believe me? Watch Icarus.
So, yeah. It’s fun for some, but not all.
Sources: sports-reference.com, wiki, sbnation.com, olympic.org