Where the Rich and Elite Meet to Compete

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By Paul Farhi
Sunday, February 5, 2006

Never mind the usual puffery about what this month's Winter Olympics are all about. Sure, there's the beauty of sports, the spirit of friendly competition, the dedication of great athletes and all that. But the Winter Games are about a few other things as well: elitism, exclusion and the triumph of the world's sporting haves over its have nots.

What the Winter Games are not is a truly international sporting competition that brings the best of the world together to compete, as the promotional blather would have you believe. Unlike the widely attended Summer Olympics, the winter version is almost exclusively the preserve of a narrow, generally wealthy, predominantly Caucasian collection of athletes and nations. In fact, I'd suggest that the name of the Winter Games, which start Friday, be changed. They could be more accurately branded "The European and North American Expensive Sports Festival."

Throughout most of the Winter Olympics' history, the parade of participating nations has been a short one. Until as recently as 1994, fewer than a third of the planet's countries took part. This year, in Turin, Italy, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) expects delegations from about 85 countries, an all-time high, but still barely 43 percent of the world's total. Even that exaggerates the extent of participation. Many of the nations in the Opening Ceremonies will be represented by tokens, some consisting entirely of sports bureaucrats, not athletes. Ethiopia, a nation of 73 million, will send its first "team" to a Winter Olympics this year -- a single skier.

As always, the biggest delegations, and the big winners, will come from a familiar pool. In the history of the winter competition, dating from its inception in 1924, competitors from only six countries -- the Soviet Union/Russia, Germany (East, West and combined), Norway, the United States, Austria and Finland, in that order -- have won almost two-thirds of all the medals awarded. Only 17 countries have ever amassed more than 10 medals during the past 19 winter Olympiads. Only 38 countries have won even one medal.

This had turned the Winter Olympics into a remarkably insular competition. The Czech Republic (and Czechoslovakia before it) has won more medals than China, home to about one-fifth of humanity. Norway, a nation with a population smaller than metropolitan Washington, has won three times as many winter medals as the nations of Asia, Latin and South America, Australia and Polynesia, the Middle East and the Caribbean Basin combined.

By contrast, the all-time list of summer winners is long and deep, extending to athletes from 143 countries, including such places as Tonga, Paraguay and Burundi. The Summer Games have medal hogs, too, but nothing like winter ones. The top six in the summer -- the United States, the Soviet Union/Russia, Germany, France, Britain and Italy -- have swept up slightly more than half the medals since the modern games started in 1896.

Obviously, the climate and terrain in, say, Indonesia or Aruba aren't highly conducive to molding superstar aerial skiers and biathlon champions. But it's not just the presence or absence of snow and ice that determines Winter Olympics success, or even participation. If it were, some of America's best ice skaters and speedskaters wouldn't live and train in Southern California or Florida. If it were, athletes from countries like Peru, Chile, Nepal, Morocco, Afghanistan and Ethiopia -- all blessed with soaring, snow-covered mountains -- would be marching en masse in the Opening Ceremonies and fighting for the medal stand.

Instead, the more telling factors are economic. Would-be Winter Olympians need years of training, coaching and competition if they're going to make it to the Games. All of these things require massive sums of money. A bobsled (or bobsleigh, in official IOC-speak) costs about $35,000, to say nothing of what it costs to build an Olympic-caliber bobsled run. A pair of speedskates might be relatively cheap, but how many countries have speedskating rinks? Most nations, even those with plenty of snow and cold, simply can't afford such extravagances.

Remember the Jamaican bobsled team? Those lovable underdogs endeared themselves to many with their participation in the 1988 games in Calgary (the four-man team was the subject of the 1993 Disney movie "Cool Runnings" and finished a surprisingly high 14th in 1994). Less well-known is what happened -- or didn't happen -- to the Jamaicans in the 2002 games in Salt Lake City: They didn't show up. The team ran out of funding and had to stay home.

Unlike the Winter Games, the Summer Olympics level many of the advantages of national wealth, as well as favorable geography and climate. It takes all the usual things to become a Summer Olympian -- heart, outsized talent and the ability to devote most of your waking hours to your sport -- but the barriers to entry are much lower. Athletes from the poorest African and Caribbean nations have developed into some of the world's greatest athletes with shockingly minimal, or even nonexistent, facilities and equipment.

In winter sports, by contrast, the rich keep getting richer. Nations wealthy enough to host a Winter Olympics tend to be those that win most of the medals (17 of the 20 Winter Olympics have been held in Western Europe, Canada or the United States). And hosting the Games tends to ensure future success; the expensive facilities left behind -- the ski jumps, skeleton runs, half-pipes, etc. -- become training grounds for the next generation of Olympians.

Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, recognized some of these global sporting inequities more than a century ago. De Coubertin objected to the creation of a separate Winter Olympics for many years, dismissing winter sports in 1921 as "the snobbish play of the rich." It wasn't until 1924 -- some 28 years after the first modern Olympics -- that the IOC retroactively recognized something called the "International Week of Winter Sports" in Chamonix, France, as the first Winter Olympics.

So why perpetuate an event that could just as easily be contested as a series of disaggregated annual championships? The reason, of course, is money and TV. And here again, it's a small world. The Winter Olympics might collapse were it not for the financial support of American broadcasters and their (mostly) American advertisers. Like the teams themselves, the audience for the Winter Olympics is predominantly North American and European, accounting for about two-thirds of all worldwide viewing during the Salt Lake City Games of 2002, according to the IOC. This is just fine by the Olympics' "worldwide" sponsors -- companies like Coca-Cola, McDonald's, Panasonic and Visa -- whose biggest markets are in these places, too. Indeed, with NBC paying about half of all the fees for TV rights the IOC collects, American sponsors and broadcasters call the tune. In 1994, facing sponsor "fatigue" from same-year Summer and Winter Olympics, the IOC decided to stagger the two seasons' Games, so that the Winter Olympics now take place two years after the summer ones.

This is not to suggest that Winter Olympians aren't dedicated and superb athletes. They are, of course. But the pool of actual and potential competitors in, say, luge or curling (or skeleton or biathlon or bobsledding or freestyle moguls skiing) is ludicrously small and will probably remain so for years to come. The Winter Olympics simply aren't, and probably can't be, a truly global sporting contest.

So please, in the next few weeks, spare us the hokum about the nations of the world joining together in a symbolic celebration of the human spirit. Some nations and some human spirit maybe, but unfortunately, all too precious little.

Author's e-mail: farhip@washpost.com

Paul Farhi is a staff writer in the Post's Style section.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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