The Winter Games

With sports like curling for the more cerebral athletes or luge for the more gutsy, the Winter Games have always been the more eccentric, offbeat counterpart to the Summer Games. This is a history of those games and its medalists.

While the Summer Games allow greater leeway with respect to which city can host them, the Winter Olympics have more trickier requirements regarding temperature, snowfall, and elevation.

The first Winter Games were hosted in Chamonix, France in 1924. Although figure skating and ice hockey had been held in previous Summer Games, limitations of the summer climate and a call for winter sports at a 1921 convention compelled the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to organize a separate event for sports contested on ice and snow.

This year, the Olympics are hosted in Pyeongchang, South Korea. The city has dubbed itself "Happy 700," a reference to its elevation above sea level, which a Korean tourism website claims is "ideal for the biorhythm of humans, animals, and plants." In 2014, organizers of the Sochi Games had stockpiled snow from previous winters and purchased hundreds of snow cannons to account for its humid and subtropical climate. This year, Pyeongchang's climate is colder than Sochi's, but they have still needed to produce artificial snow.

In 2022, the Games are returning to Beijing, the host of the 2008 Summer Games. By beating Almaty, Kazakhstan by a mere four votes, Beijing will become the first city to have hosted both the Summer and Winter Games. As a measure to minimize the exorbitant costs of the Games (Sochi cost around $50 billion, while Pyeongchang cost around $13 billion), Beijing plans to reuse some of the same venues from 2008.

This is where all of the Winter Games have been hosted. Lake Placid and St. Moritz have both hosted it twice. Because of the specific climate requirements for hosting the Games, its hosts have all been in the Northern Hemisphere, the same countries that tend to perform well at the Games.

Over the years, more and more countries have participated in the Winter Games. Tracking the countries that have participated in the Games is a lesson in international politics.

As more countries participate, the number of athletes has also risen.

However, there used to be almost no women. Female athletes were not invited to the first modern Olympic Games in 1896 because Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the IOC, thought their participation would be inappropriate. "No matter how toughened a sportswoman may be, her organism is not cut out to sustain certain shocks," the French educator and historian said then. Now, women are slowly inching toward equal participation.

New sports

The IOC has added more modern sports like freestyle skiing and snowboarding to the programme to attract younger viewers.

...and newer events

This year, the mass start event has been added to speed skating, mixed doubles to curling, big air to snowboarding, and the mixed team event to alpine skiing. Mixed and team events allow athletes who might otherwise not have a chance to medal the opportunity to do so with a well-balanced team.

How each country did at every Winter Games so far

A total of 39 countries have won at least a single medal at the Winter Games. European countries tend to dominate the medal counts, but the U.S. and Canada have become stronger all-around challengers over the years, and smaller countries like the Netherlands and South Korea have begun to find their own niche.

Which countries dominate which sports?

Germany, Russia, and Norway are contenders in almost all sports, but specialize in a couple: Germany in sledding events like bobsled and luge, Russia in figure skating and biathlon, and Norway in all of the skiing events. The U.S. has scooped up most of the medals from the newer sports, including freestyle skiing and snowboarding. Clad in their traditional orange, the Netherlands has been a perennial force in speedskating. This year, South Korea will go wild for short-track, speedskating's quirkier and faster-paced sibling. Whereas speedskating is a race against the clock, short-track is a melee, with skaters going toe to toe, jostling for position.

How old is too old?

Olympic athletes are in the prime of their lives, but those prime years vary with their sport. To participate in the Games, the IOC only requires that athletes turn 16 the year of the Olympics. Figure skaters, especially the women, tend to be younger because of the flexibility and aerodynamics required by the sport. Tara Lipinski was just 15 when she won gold in Nagano, and this year, Russia's Alina Zagitova will vie for gold at 15. On the other hand, the endurance events such as cross-country skiing welcome a broader spectrum of competitors. Norwegian cross-country skier Marit Bjørgen, one of the most decorated Winter Olympians, will be competing in her fifth Winter Games at 37.

Part of what makes the Olympics so gripping is that they remind us that we also inhabit a body. Watching the Olympics inspires a "How did he do that?" followed by a "Could I do that?" In the words of David Foster Wallace, "great athletes seem to catalyze our awareness of how glorious it is to touch and perceive, move through space, and interact with matter." Yet as we age, although that same glory he writes about never wavers, our physical capacities diminish, and we become unable to bridge the gap between our "physical wills and our actual capacities." And so every two years, we continue to tune in to the Olympics with a sense of wonder, because they give us a canvas onto which we project our own bodies, allowing us to experience the vicarious thrill that we, too, may go faster, fly higher, and push harder.

Credits and Methodology

Data came from Sports Reference. The data was collected on February 15, 2018. I merged West Germany and East Germany medals with Germany, and also merged the Soviet Union with Russia. The background cover is from Seeing Theory. Inspiration for the design goes to Russell Goldenberg of The Pudding. I used Dremio to do the data analysis. Learn more about how I built it here.