Olympic Games: a measure of athleticism or economic health?

Starting today, we will watch countries come together to compete in the 22nd Olympic Winter Games in an honest display of worldwide nationalism, talent and strength. Or more realistically, a portrayal of global inequities and the inaccessibility of winter sports to which viewers turn a blind eye. Economists Madeleine and Wladimir Andreff predicted that the United States will sweep 36 medals in Sochi, followed by 28 and 27 for Germany and Canada. Russia, Norway, Austria, Sweden and France follow decreasingly close behind.

What many don’t realize is that the Olympics, both summer and winter, define participants not in terms of athleticism but instead home country wealth. Nations across the world are littered with athletically inclined individuals who have a fair stake in the games; participants set themselves apart, then, in a measuring up of endowed resources.

Economists have studied the games for years through econometric research identifying variables that impact medal counts. But a 2004 study titled “Who Wins the Olympic Games: Economic Resources and Medal Totals” found that there is a strong correlation between total gross domestic product, or more specifically GDP per capita, and Olympic performance. That is, the more money a country has to spend per individual, the higher its success will be in the Olympics.

Often GDP goes hand in hand with higher populations that allow for a larger pool from which to choose our strongest athletic representation, along with the purchasing power to do so. It also provides athletes with an indefinite supply of training resources and corporate sponsorship. Look at Shaun White, backed by Burton Snowboards, Target, Red Bull and Hewlett-Packard. It gives athletes from developing nations incentive to flock to places like the U.S. where they will have access to similar amenities, leaving their home countries unrepresented.

These resources are especially helpful in the Winter Games, an essentially insular competition. Pair that with the hefty costs for sports like skiing, skating and hockey, and we see the Winter Olympics exemplary of the classism surrounding the tournament.

We could point to geography as playing a key role in foiling warmer countries’ efforts to compete in the Winter Olympics; however, even in sports like figure and speed skating, curling and hockey, competition exists between the wealthiest nations with money to train and provide their athletes with expensive equipment and infrastructure like large indoor facilities. Further, there exist nations like Belarus, bringing 26 athletes, and Croatia, with 11, that are geographically advantaged but are not expected to leave Sochi with any medals.

It’s hard to shake the feeling of elitism that comes with watching skiers, figure skaters and curlers – they are sports that I, and many others, never learned and probably never will. The Jamaican bobsled team was a comedic trope but revealed the norm that we’ve created out of the Winter Olympics and our expectations of its competitors.

This year, Zimbabwe will send its first Winter Olympic competitor, 20-year-old alpine skier Luke Steyn who, according to The Associated Press, “perfected his art while studying in the United States, on trips to New Zealand and Chile, and then throughout Europe on a bid to qualify.” It goes without saying that Steyn has a wealth of privilege that has allowed him to represent his country this season and serves as an anomaly to the unsettling lack of representation at the Winter Olympics.