Northeast Asia Rising: The Expanding Geography of the Winter Olympics

Many people will look at these Vancouver Olympics and remember one of two things:

  1. The tragic death of Georgian slider Nodar Kumaritashvili.
  2. The record medal count by the United States.

Kim Yu-na massacred the ladies' figure skating competition.

But one other storyline that should be remembered from the 2010 Winter Games is encapsulated in the coronation of Kim Yu-na.  The South Korean figure skater dominated the women’s program and took home gold.  Known as “Queen Yu-na” in her homeland, her dominating performance not only gave South Korea its first gold medal; it also signaled the maturity of the Asian winter sport programs and that the “Far East” has come to play.

The Winter Olympics have long been dominated by European states.  Make no mistake here that those countries, as well as the United States and Canada, continue to dominate the sports of the Winter Olympics.

But Asia, and in particular Northeast Asia, is beginning to serve as staunch challengers to their counterparts from the West.  These countries have come a long way.

The first Winter Olympics were held in France in 1924.  At those Games, there were a total of 16 countries of which 14 were European states.  The 1928 Winter Olympics in Switzerland saw a little more diversity as Argentina, Mexico and Japan participated in the Games.  In 1936, Turkey would become the first Southwest Asian country to participate (although it could be argued that Lebanon is the first SW Asian country to participate in 1952).  Australia and New Zealand first participated in 1952, while the first African country (Morocco) did not send a constituency until 1968.

Despite the early entry of some non-European and non-North American countries, the participating states were still concentrated in those two areas.  For example, South Korea did not join its Asian neighbor Japan in the Winter Games until 1948.  The Republic of Korea, as it is officially known, has participated in every Winter Olympics since 1956.  The participatory record of North Korea, on the other hand, has been spotty.

The reason for the lack of participation beyond the “West” is two-fold.  First off, many countries do not possess the physical geography to build and support winter sports programs.  But, more importantly, prior to the end of World War II, most of the non-Western world was occupied by imperialist states.  Even Japan had its own colonies on the Asian mainland.

Independence gave birth to new countries, and with that new potential Winter Olympics participants.  Hence the rise in numbers after World War II.

China is a different story.  Due to Western recognition of the Republic of China (Taiwan) as the “true” China, the People’s Republic of China chose not to participate in the Olympics.  The PRC did not participate until 1984 after much of the West had abandoned Taiwan in favor of the mainland.  Taiwan, on the other hand, competed as “Republic of China” in 1972 and 1976, and then as “Chinese Taipei” since 1984.

While participation from Northeast Asia and other parts of the world has grown, success has been slow.  Japan won the first ever medal for Asia (silver in the men’s slalom) at the 1956 Winter Games in Italy.  It took another two Olympics for another medal to go to Asia, this time to North Korea; another silver but this time in the women’s 3000 meters speed skating event.

It was not until Japan hosted the 1972 Winter Olympics in Sapporo that the first Asian gold medal was won.  Kasaya Yukio grabbed gold as Japan swept the normal hill ski jump.  This also marked the first time that any country outside of the West took more than one medal.  It would be another 20 years before that happened again.

The 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France marked the beginning of a more prominent Asian presence at the Winter Games.  Japan led the way with seven total medals, but South Korea began to make a name for itself in speed skating, winning two gold medals, one silver and one bronze.  China walked away three silver medals while North Korea took home a bronze; all four of these medals were in speed skating.

The Chinese women's curling team took home bronze at the 2010 Winter Games.

Since 1992, Asian countries, and in particular Northeast Asian countries, have steadily improved their performance in the Winter Games.  In 1992, Asia accounted for 8.77 percent of all medals and 5.26 percent of gold medals.  Of the medals awarded to Asia states, only 20 percent (three) were gold.

Just two years later in Lillehammer, Asia saw their gold medals increase to seven, or 11.48 percent of all golds award.  Gold medals constituted a plurality of the Asian medals (38.89 percent).

Aside from a disappointing showing in Salt Lake City in 2002, these numbers have remained constant.  In Vancouver, Asia accounted for 12.79 percent of all golds, and 12.02 percent of all medals.  The raw numbers are the highest they have ever been for Asia, with 11 golds and 31 total medals.

What is more impressive is the rise of South Korea.  The Republic of Korea finished the 2010 Olympics with six gold medals (tied for fifth with Switzerland) and 14 total medals (seventh).  China finished with five golds (11 overall), while Japan garnered only five medal, none of which were gold.  [NOTE: Kazakhstan adds one more medal — a silver — to the Asian total, although they are not part of Northeast Asia].

2010 Winter Olympic medals by country.

To add to this, Asia continues to be the only non-Western region to regularly win any medals at the Winter Olympics.  In fact, other than Australia and New Zealand, no other region has won a medal.  However, to be fair, Africa, the Caribbean, Central America, South America and Southwest Asia do not send a large number of athletes to the Winter Games.

But it is worth noting participation in the Winter Olympics.  Europe sends by far the most number of countries, as well as the most athletes.  In 2010, Europe was represented by over 1800 athletes from 46 countries.  North America was second with 422 athletes from three countries, while Asia sent 286 participants (236 from Northeast Asia) from 14 states.*

Country Participation by Region

It is worth noting that since the successful run for Asian countries in 1992, Asia has seen its number of athlete participation nearly double from 150 to 286.  While the break up of the Soviet Union did play a smart part in that increase, it should also be noted that Northeast Asian numbers jumped from 147 participants in 1992 to 236 in 2010.

Furthermore, because Europe, as well as North America, send more athletes and participate in more sports across the board, they are more likely to “medal” at the Winter Olympics.  But if the medal count is normalized by number of athletes, then Asia seems to be holding its own:

  • Asia: 1 medal for every 9 athletes (1 gold for every 26 athletes)
  • Europe: 1 medal for every 11 athletes (1 gold for every 35 athletes)
  • North America: 1 medal for every 7 athletes (1 gold for every 18 athletes).

Of course, some athletes win more than one medal and team events skew the numbers somewhat, but the point is that the rate is better for Asia compared to Europe.  The Asian medal rate is comparable to North America.  When looking at just Northeast Asia, the numbers draw closer to North America (1 medal for every 8 athletes; 1 gold for every 21 athletes).

The point of all of this is that the Winter Olympics, once dominated by the Nordic countries and Europe in general, are finally beginning to take on a truly global flavor.  As the programs in Asia, particularly China and South Korea, continue to improve, it is only a matter of time before South America begins to take home a few Winter medals.

One things is for certain; with Pyeongchang, South Korea in a good position to gain the bid for the 2018 Winter Games, Asia has come to play and will continue to be a player in the Winter Olympics for the foreseeable future.

* – The countries of Armenia and Azerbaijan were grouped with Europe.  Bermuda was grouped with North America.

An Asterisk Needed for the Luge Competition

A tragic (and avoidable) accident has led to the “dumbing down” of a sport.

On Friday (12 February), Georgian slider Nodar Kumaritashvili entered turn 16 of the notorious Whistler track for the final turn of his life.  Mere seconds later, Kumaritashvili was thrown from his sled and into a metal pole.  And before the Vancouver Olympics could even begin, the death of one of its athletes had bloodied its hands.

No joking here; just rest in peace.

I have not seen the video of the accident; nor do I desire to see it.  I have read enough to know what happened and how tragic it is.  I think that up until this accident, people were not aware how dangerous sliding can be.

The Whistler track is considered the fastest in the world.  Because competitors can reach speeds in excess of 90 miles per hour, this track is also among the most dangerous.  Think the Talladega Superspeedway in NASCAR, but without restrictor plates.

And this is a track that while it tests the world’s best sliders, it is also one that scared the shit out of them.  Kumaritashvili himself had noted to his father that the track scared him, especially the turn that took his life.

The death of Kumaritashvili forced the Olympic organizers and the International Luge Federation (FIL) to take a reactive measure, considering everything from canceling the event to moving the start position up.  The decision was to move the starting position up to the female starts.  This move shortened the track and lowered the top speeds.

While everyone had to overcome the slower track, the move was criticized by some who felt the speed of Whistler was an advantage.  Nevertheless, German luger Felix Loch took home the gold.

But what if the accident did not occur?  If the start was not pushed down the mountain, how would things have played out?  I ask this not because I believe that Kumaritashvili would have won the competition.  I ask this because the start position did play a role in the outcome.

That takes nothing away from Loch.  This claim that perhaps an asterisk is necessary for the men’s singles rests on the recent claims by the Vancouver Olympic Committee and the FIL that Kumaritashvili, not the track, is to blame for the accident.  The Georgian entered the turn too high, attempted to compensate for this, and ended up losing control.

While human error does appear to be the cause of the accident, Kumaritashvili is not some Average Joe wandering in off the streets of Vancouver (or Whistler, to be exact).  Yes, this was his first Olympic Games, but he was obviously good enough to qualify for the event.  He knew what he was doing and yet still crashed.

And, he is not the only one to express concerns about the course.  Several other athletes, including those in bobsledding, had noted the dangerous nature of the Whistler course.  Additionally, FIL president Josef Fendt was concerned about the speeds that could be reached on this track.

Then there is the chicken-egg debate.  Did a crash like Kumaritashvili’s make Whistling appear dangerous?  Or, was the track so treacherous that it caused an athlete like Kumaritashvili to crash?  Given that crashes are not uncommon in luge — bronze medalist Armin Zoeggeler also crashed during training — I tend to believe the latter is true.

Thus, while human error may have caused the tragic accident, the track was the impetus behind the “error.”

If the track is not the cause for the error, then why adjust the start position?  It seems hypocritical and disrespectful to Kumaritashvili.  It is hypocritical because the move was made despite blaming the athlete.  It is disrespectful because it does not address the greater issue of safety for the athletes.

It should not take a tragic accident for a sports body to take action in order to protect its athletes.  I am reminded of the reactive nature of NASCAR, especially after the death Dale Earnhardt in 2001 (almost nine years ago to the day).  While safety measures have dramatically improved in NASCAR, it took the death of one of auto racing’s most famous drivers to do what was necessary.

While Kumaritashvili was not a superstar in luge, it is still in his death that the FIL begins to consider improving the safety of its athletes.  Ironically, some possible measures could be derived from NASCAR, such as catch fencing.

Danger is an intricate part of luge.  But death should not be a part of any athletic competition.  As Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili stated, “No sport mistake is supposed to lead to death.”

It was a sad way to begin what should be a celebration of some of the best athletes in the world.  If the FIL and the Olympics want to make the best of this situation, they need to use this opportunity to improve the safety of its athletes.  As President Saakashvili noted, “If this death can lead to improved security and response to people expressing their concerns, maybe it was not in vain.”  That would be a better response than simply blaming Kumaritashvili in what amounts to an attempt to cover the FIL’s ass.

But if we just sit around and continue to play the blame game, then everyone loses.