Which Country Dominates Which Olympic Sport? (Winter Edition)

Ever since I wrote it in the summer of 2012, one of the “greatest hits” of this blog has been a post asking which countries dominate which Olympic sports. (Clearly the current Olympiad has revived interest: that post made the “Big Ten” for the last month and, as I write this, sits atop the “Top Posts & Pages” list.) So as the Sochi Games wind up and winter remains in full force here in Minnesota, it seemed like a good use of my snow-bound time to ask the same question of the winter Olympic sports.

As with the first post, I used a “medal-points” system — 3 for gold, 2 for silver, 1 for bronze — rather than total medals or golds alone. Unlike the first post, this time I looked at the entire history of the Winter Games, back to 1924. (That’s simply because there are far fewer sports being contested by far fewer countries — at least, those with a reasonable hope of making the podium in any given event. By my count, barely forty countries have ever won a Winter Olympics medal of any color.)

Now, keen observers may have noticed that the 2012 version actually asked “which countries (and continents) dominate which sports?” I didn’t even bother adding the parenthetical here, since, as even the most casual observer of the Winter Olympics know, one continent has utterly dominated that version of the Games.

I’ll give you a hint: it starts and ends with a vowel, and it isn’t Africa, America, Asia, or Australia. (Or Antarctica.)

German team at Vancouver opening ceremonies
The German team at the opening ceremonies in Vancouver, 2010 – Creative Commons (Tabercil)

Yes, by my reckoning, Europe has won almost 78% of the medal-points available across all sports in all the Winter Olympiads. But that barely begins to indicate the one-sidedness of most of these competitions: Europe has the majority of points in all but two sports, and it has 74% or higher in more than half of them. North America accounts for about a sixth of the points, and Asia & Oceania — almost entirely Japan, China, South Korea, and Australia — for the remaining 6%. Central and South America, Africa, and western, southern, and southeastern Asia have never medaled in the Winter Olympics.

Anyway, here are the sports, from least European-dominant to most:

Sport

Most Dominant Country

Most Dominant Continent

Short Track
Speed Skating

South Korea (34.5%)

Asia (58.3%)

Freestyle Skiing

Canada (22.0%)

North America (41.5%)

Ice Hockey

Canada (28.8%)

Europe (51.3%)

Snowboard

USA (32.8%)

Europe (54.4%)

Skeleton

USA (30.0%)

Europe (55.0%)

Figure Skating

*Russia/USSR (28.8%)

Europe (65.5%)

Curling

Canada (29.8%)

Europe (66.7%)

Speed Skating

The Netherlands (19.6%)

Europe (74.6%)

Bobsled

*Germany (34.3%)

Europe (78.2%)

Alpine Skiing

Austria (25.2%)

Europe (86.4%)

Nordic Combined

Norway (32.4%)

Europe (90.2%)

Ski Jumping

Norway (23.7%)

Europe (91.5%)

Luge

*Germany (62.1%)

Europe (97.2%)

Biathlon

*Germany (32.1%)

Europe (97.7%)

Cross-Country Skiing

*Russia/USSR (24.9%)

Europe (97.9%)

*One problem with looking at the entire period rather than just more recent history (for the summer I focused on 2000 and after) is that the end of the Cold War reshuffled the Winter Olympic mix. I don’t see much problem with lumping together East Germany, West Germany, and unified Germany into one group, as I did here. I had more difficulty deciding what to do about Soviet (and, in 1992, Unified Team) results, since clearly not all of those athletes were Russians. But most were, and in all but one or two of these events, Russia is the only former Soviet republic to make much of a splash since the early Nineties, so I just threw the USSR/Unified Team results together with those of Russia.

Now, at first glance the Winter Olympic sports can seem somewhat more competitive than those in the Summer. There are five summer sports in which one nation earns 40% or more of the points; in the winter, that’s true only of Rennrodeln (as its dominant nation calls luge).

Except that most of these sports are dominated by a handful of nations, often in close geographic proximity to each other. Behold, the winter sports in which a geographical sub-region (as defined by the UN) has won at least 40% of the available medal-points:

  • Western Europe: Luge (75.5%); Alpine Skiing (62.3%); Bobsled (62.1%); Biathlon (41.8%); Snowboard (40.0%)
  • Northern Europe: Cross-Country Skiing (55.6%); Nordic Combined (51.4%); Curling (49.1%); Ski Jumping (46.2%)
  • North America: Ice Hockey (48.7%); Skeleton (45.0%); Snowboard (43.2%); Freestyle Skiing (41.5%)
  • Eastern Asia: Short Track (56.8%)

By this standard, speed skating is far and away the most competitive sport in the Winter Olympics, though that’s partly because it simply has more races than some others:

  1. Western Europe (35.0%)
  2. Northern Europe (22.8%)
  3. North America (20.1%)
  4. Eastern Europe (16.2%)
  5. Eastern Asia (5.3%)

For the record, forty-five of the 108 members of the International Olympic Committee are European, as is current IOC president Thomas Bach (Germany). Only one IOC president has come from a continent other than Europe (American Avery Brundage, who served from 1952 to 1972).


3 thoughts on “Which Country Dominates Which Olympic Sport? (Winter Edition)

  1. Chris, This is all very interesting. Well, not really (to me). I have very low interest in sports. But my wife watches the summer and winter olympics every time and I become for two weeks an “Olympics widower.” However, as I walk in and out of the living room where she is watching (always in prime time) I seem to notice that the media focus more attention on women athletes than on men athletes–especially but not only in skating. Am I wrong about that? My wife says I’m wrong, but every time I walk through the living room when the Olympics are on (in the evening, so media chosen re-plays of daily events) I see female athletes performing, being interviewed, featured in human interest stories, etc.Is there an growing gender imbalance in media prime time coverage of the Olympics?

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