Around the world, the Olympic rings are a symbol of unity, each representing a continent. Despite this, no African or South American has ever brought home a Winter Olympic Games medal. While the climate is certainly a factor, there is more to the issue, experts say.
“We don’t all enter the arena on equal footing,” said Dan Johnson, an economics professor at Colorado College. “Excellence goes hand-in-hand with resources.”
Johnson works with a team that has predicted the results of the last five Olympics Games with 93 to 96 percent accuracy, analyzing how many medals each country would bring home.
“We’re using 60 years of data to predict what will happen next,” he said.
The team bases its analysis on five factors — total population, per capita income, political structure, climate and whether that country is hosting the games that year.
Hosts have the home-field advantage, richer countries have more financial resources and more populated countries have a greater chance of producing naturally talented
Communist governments like the Soviet Union typically produce better athletes than democracies because they are government-funded and the government can exercise greater control over its potential Olympians.
Temperate climates are simply less dangerous, Johnson said, in terms of disease and animal predators — and when staying alive and healthy is easier, the athletes tend to perform better.
China’s dominance in 2008 is an excellent example — they were hosting. They have a huge population and a government that can control and support its athletes, a temperate climate and an average income in the midst of rapid growth.
The disparity is much greater in the Winter Games than in summer, Johnson said, though he added that more countries send larger contingents to the summer Olympics, simply because it is cheaper to compete.
IU ice hockey coach Tom Orr said outfitting a hockey player costs around $2,000, $4,000 for a goalie — and that’s not including sticks, facility fees or the salaries of the coaches, trainers and other personnel necessary to train Olympians.
“We need to rent an ice rink, and those are not cheap to run, to build, to maintain,” Susi Wehrli-McLaughlin of U.S. Figure Skating said, adding that more are being built in South America and many international athletes train in the United States.
She said renting a rink can cost $150 to $400 per hour and most Olympic hopefuls spend 15 to 20 hours on the ice, in addition to off-ice cross-training. A pair of high-end figure skates run about $800, especially because the boots are usually custom-made for elite skaters.
Orr and Wehrli-McLaughlin agreed that most developing countries don’t yet have the grassroots programs where training future gold medallists begins.
“It’s all a pyramid, and you have to have a strong, wide base at the grassroots level,” Wehrli-McLaughlin said. “You have to get people excited, you have to get people to try the sport, to fall in love with the sport.”