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Building a successful Winter Olympics team is expensive.
It takes top athletes, training, and equipment that tends to be pricier than in the Summer Games.
“The Winter Olympics are a useful backdrop for case studies on the relationship between athletic performance and economic progress in emerging markets around the world,” writes ConvergEx’s Nick Colas. “We’ve analysed the medal count by country since the inaugural Winter Games in 1924, and indeed the results show that athletes rarely make it to the podium until their respective countries experience economic progress and stability.”
“Furthermore, consistent podium-worthy performances in subsequent years are typically correlated with GDP growth,” he writes.
Colas provides some case studies. From the note:
- Japan’s Winter Olympic performance history tells a post-WWII recovery story. The country competed in three Winter Games (1928, 1932 and 1936) before it won its first medal — silver — in 1956. Japanese athletes didn’t earn any additional medals until the 1972 games, which the country hosted, and have been consistently making an appearance on the podium since 1980. Japan won its first medal when it was taking off as an emerging economy and getting its economic act together following WWII. Industrialism in the country picked up rapidly following the war, and the Olympic medal consistency coincided with the consumption boom in the 1980s.
- South Korea’s Winter Games story is similar to Japan’s, just two to three decades later. However, it did take South Koreans a bit longer to arrive on the podium — the country competed in 10 Winter Games before winning four medals in 1992 (two gold, one silver and one bronze). Since then, South Korea has performed consistently well, earning a peak of 14 medals at the 2010 Games in Vancouver. Just as the country fully emerged from the shadow of the Korean War, its athletes were solid performers on the global stage.
- China’s performance history is also emblematic of a developing economy gaining critical mass in sport and economic growth. Like South Korea, China won its first Winter Olympic medals in 1992 (three silvers). Chinese athletes had competed in three prior games dating back to 1980 before the emerged on the podium in Albertville, France. Also similar to South Korea, China consistently earned medals in subsequent Games, recording a high of 11 at the 2010 Olympics. China underwent a host of economic reform initiatives in the 1970s and 1980s; by the 1990s the country experienced rapid economic growth (10.4% GDP) even with skyrocketing inflation that topped 20% in 1994. Again, consistent trips to the Winter Olympics podium went hand-in-hand with an emerging economy.
Even the U.S.’s Olympic prowess is linked with the economy, Colas notes.
“In the earlier years of the Winter Olympics, the United States lagged the likes of Finland and Norway in the medal count,” he writes. “Later on in the 1960s and 1970s, the Soviet Union/Russia and Germany also topped the U.S. in trips to the podium. And though the United States continued to improve throughout the latter half of the 20th century, it actually wasn’t until 2010 that American athletes won more medals than any other nationality.”
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