Olympic Geography

February 19, 2014 § Leave a comment

I have seen a fair amount of Olympic critiques from the American left in the past week or so, or, well, since the Olympics began.  And aside from what you’d expect, about Russia’s horrendous human rights records, Putin’s disgusting homophobia, another trend has been criticising the Winter Olympics as essentially a party for wealthy northern nations.  Comparisons are made between the Winter and Summer Olympics and where athletes are from, and the size of the delegations and the like.  Aside from large northern sporting nations (the US, Russia), the geographic distribution of competing nations in the Summer Olympics is necessarily much larger than for the winter variety.  Of course, the Summer Olympics is also a much larger event than the winter variety.

But I have a fundamental problem with this critique.  The Sochi Winter Olympics medal standings right now is topped by the Netherlands and the USA, followed by Russia, Norway, and Canada.  In Vancouver in 2010, the standings went: United States, Canada, Germany, Norway, and Austria.  In contrast, in London in 2012, the standings went like this: United States, China, Britain, Russia, South Korea.  Four years earlier in Beijing: United States, China, Russia, Britain, Australia.

In both winter and summer Olympics, the medal standings are dominated by the USA and Russia (with the exception of Vancouver 2010).  The other nations in the top five vary.  In the winter, it is the Dutch, Norwegians, Canadians, Germans, Swiss, and Austrians.  In the summer, the other nations are: China, Britain, South Korea, and Australia.  All are wealthy northern nations, depending on how you want to classify China and Russia, who are at the very least at the BRICS level of emerging economic powerhouses.  There are no poor nations from the Global South.  In other words, both summer and winter Olympics are dominated by wealthy northern nations (ok, Australia’s in the South, but you get the point).

Of course, there is still the simple fact that there are athletes from the Global South in the Summer Olympics, and not the Winter Olympics (aside from token representation, such as Jamaican bobsledders and the three Indians in Sochi).  But this is also simply a reflection of geography. Winter sports are played in cold, northern nations.  And the alpine sporting disciplines that feature at the Olympics tend not to be TV ratings champions outside of Olympic years.  In other words, of course the Norwegians are going to ski and skate and the Jamaicans are going to play soccer and do track.

So what to make of this American leftist critique of the Winter Olympics? From what I’ve read, it seems this is simply a case of “We Are the World,” and it’s more an American critique of American chauvinism at the Olympics. Yet, those who make this critique are wonderfully un-self aware that they are just as chauvinistic as the chauvinism they are criticising. Ain’t life grand?

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