The Geopolitics of Winter Olympic Medal Counts

Can Russia reclaim its former Olympic glory?
Performers march during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics (Issei Kato/Reuters)

If you ask the International Olympic Committee, the Games are a competition "between athletes in individual or team events"—not between countries. But we know better: The outcome of the Olympics has always had implications for national prestige. And no country understands this better than Russia, whose Olympic success has risen and fallen in step with its changing geopolitical fortunes.

Will the Winter Games in Sochi allow Russia to reclaim its Cold War-era Olympic supremacy? Here's a look at six trends that have shaped national performance in the Olympics in recent decades.

1. Host countries often shine—but not always

Is there such a thing as home-field advantage in the Olympics, and does that translate into future success for host countries? The results are mixed. Japan, for instance, won 10 medals in Nagano in 1998, but its athletes failed to win that many in the subsequent three Winter Games combined. Norway scored its most medals in recent years in Lillehammer in 1994, but not by much—its medal counts have held pretty steady over time. Italy, on the other hand, performed worse in Turin than it did four years earlier in Salt Lake City. The United States more than doubled its previous medal count when it hosted the 2002 Winter Games in Utah. Then, after a dip in Turin, Team USA rebounded in Vancouver four years later.

The prophecy also might be self-fulfilling: After failing to win gold when it hosted the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal and the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary, Canada invested $117 million in its five-year "Own the Podium" program as it prepared to host the 2010 Winter Games. Team Canada didn't just win a gold medal in Vancouver; it won 14 of them, becoming the first host nation since Norway in 1952 to lead the overall medal table.

2. Russia could use the home-field advantage

Russia has had a rocky post-communist Olympic path. The Soviet Union, which first competed in the Winter Olympics in 1956, brought home the most medals of any country in seven of the nine Games it competed in, and the second-most in the other two. But Russia's performance has suffered since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. In 2010, when Russia posted its worst performance at the Winter Olympics in nearly a century, then-President Dmitry Medvedev demanded the resignations of the country's top Olympic officials. "Unprecedented investments are being made in sports in Russia, but money is not everything," he lamented.

3. More countries are competing in the Winter Olympics than ever, but the number of countries that medal hasn't kept pace

More nations competed in more events than ever before during the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver. But the number of national teams whose athletes bring home a medal hasn't grown at the same rate. Almost two-thirds of nations at the first Winter Games in 1924 won a gold, silver, or bronze medal; in 2010, almost two-thirds didn't. (During the most recent Summer Olympics, in 2012, nearly 40 percent of of the 204 participating nations won at least one medal.) The number of Olympic events has also increased dramatically, from 16 events across six sports in 1924 to 98 events across seven sports this year (12 new winter events alone are debuting in Sochi).

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Matt Ford is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the National Channel and works on social media.

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