I love the Winter Olympics. As someone who grew up in Lombardy in Italy, where going to the mountains in winter is as easy as going to the beach in Australia is great to see these kinds of sport. Sporting heroes of my childhood included the famous ‘Azzurri Avalanche‘ where Italians were one of the top nations in downhill skiing (which was then the most important event in winter sports, long before moguls and snowboards appeared on the scene). I can still remember the delayed telecasts of the Sapporo 1972 Olympics, as I arrived home from school and watched the fuzzy pictures of early satellite broadcasts.
But when my childhood ended I came to Australia, and one of the advantages of migrating is that it allows a different perspective of the world. Australia had of course mountains and skiing (I went to Falls Creek and Perisher myself, and had a great time). But really it is not a cold alpine/Nordic country. It is mainly “a sunburnt country, A land of sweeping plains” and of course a country girt by sea.
I wasn’t here in 1972, but I do wonder how many Australians were interested, or even aware of those Olympics. I was here by the time the 1976 Olympics in Innsbruck came around. I can’t recall any major mention of it. If my memory serves me correctly the first Winter Olympics to be televised in Australia was in 1980 at Lake Placid (the ‘Miracle on Ice’ ones, where the USA hockey team made up of amateur and collegiate players defeated the Soviet Union national team, who had won nearly every world championship and Olympic tournament since 1964.) And then in Sarajevo in 1984, where the ratings went through the roof thanks to the skating pair of Torvill and Dean.
When I did Geography at Uni I was told off Environmental Determinism but any superficial observation shows that the most successful countries in winter sports are those who have cold winters, with ice and snow. While countries such as Australia do quite well in sports that involve water and some sort of swimming.
But if the chances of doing well in a sport are so influenced by geography should they be included in an Olympics? If we look at the ‘Fundamental Principles of Olympism’ in the Olympic Charter, point 3 states:
The Olympic Movement is the concerted, organised, universal and permanent action, carried out under the supreme authority of the IOC, of all individuals and entities who are inspired by the values of Olympism. It covers the five continents. It reaches its peak with the bringing together of the world’s athletes at the great sports festival, the Olympic Games. Its symbol is five interlaced rings
Of course we have representatives from all continents. But by its nature the Winter Olympics cuts out most of the globe. Firstly all the countries roughly 30 degrees north and south of the equator are majorly disadvantaged. They are warm/hot/tropical and no much chance of snow. Many love the film ‘Cool Runnings‘ as a story of doing your best against adversity etc. etc. but that movie betray the sense that teams from tropical countries are a curious sideshow at the Winter Olympics with plenty of patronising attitudes. Adding to that is the fact that winter sports are expensive, and to participate you need lots of money. You need infrastructure (ie bobsleigh tracks, ski jumping ramps etc.) not many countries can afford that. And if athletes do want to participate in these sports and at least account for the expense of sending them to an Olympics they probably need to travel and train to a place where there is snow and where these facilities are available.
This of course is also an issue for the Summer Olympics. You don’t see many developing countries winning at the pool or equestrian events, as these also require plenty of money and infrastructure and are dominated by rich countries, but on the other hand we see the dominance of certain events in athletics, especially on the track and road running where just effort, talent and ability allows athletes to train even with minimal equipment. This sort of opportunity is not available to countries like Kenya, or Algeria when it comes to winter sports.
Also hosting the games. If we want to be fair in the spirit of the Olympics every country should have a chance to host them. But a Winter Olympics in the Southern Hemisphere is unimaginable. There would be plenty of places with snow and mountains (New Zealand, Chile) that could do it, but do you imagine traditional Northern Hemisphere countries having a Winter Olympics in August? I don’t think so. So it’s discriminatory there as well.
The founder of the Modern Olympics, Pierre de Coubertin had the right idea. He also thought that the concept of a Winter Olympics was not applicable precisely for the reasons above. He suggested that if there was to be a festival of winter sports it should be called the ‘Northern Games’. That would be the most apt description. Let’s go with the original idea of the founder of the modern Olympics and describe them for what they really are. Great sports which are practiced mainly in the Northern Hemisphere affluent countries in their winter.