Being an Olympian means representing your nation to the world. It means reaching the pinnacle of the sport and is a testament to an athlete’s dedication, talent and hard work. It’s both an honor and a responsibility, but there’s a lot more to it than one might think.
We definitely have a lot of false perceptions about the Olympians we glorify. While they may hold our attention and our hearts for two weeks every few years, the vast majority of them live in relative obscurity. They are far from the celebrity status that many of our nation’s professional athletes in football, basketball or baseball live with on a daily basis.
Yes, there will always be the Michael Phelps and the Shaun Whites of the world, but the vast majority of Olympians are everyday people. Sure they are talented and dedicated, but the majority is far from wealthy—not to mention the amount of people that have dedicated their entire lives to their sport, sacrificing their academic aspirations, personal relationships and career goals just to fall short of even qualifying.
Then again, making it to the Olympics is one thing and actually winning a gold medal is an entirely other thing. While gold medals may not have been made of pure gold since the 1912 Olympic Games in Sweden, they still represent the ultimate symbol of athletic success.
So what is a gold medal?
Well, according to the International Olympic Olympics, for the last century or so at least, a gold medal is actually 92.6 percent silver with just over six grams of gold. They look and feel the same across every event and tally the same on the Olympic medal chart (more commonly known as America versus the world), but are all gold medals really created equally?
I’m not just talking about a difference in sports preferences. That comes down to a combination of nationality and personal beliefs. I’m referring to the barriers to entry that make it much harder for certain countries, especially those in the developing world, to even have a chance to compete in the Olympics.
The Winter Olympics is inherently unequal. The vast majority of sports require cold weather and snow, but more and more, they also require a substantial amount of money to train and compete. Sure, the Jamaicans managed to pull together a bobsled team on multiple occasions, but, while they may be winning our hearts, they aren’t exactly bringing home the medals. While our Jamaican friends in Cool Runnings might have reached the 1988 Winter Olympics bobsledding finals, their real-life counterparts were eliminated in the qualifiers.
The “applicant pool” is inherently smaller than that of sports in the Summer Olympics, such as track and field, soccer or swimming.
The New Yorker recently published an article entitled, “Wealth, Equality and Olympic Success,” examining the correlation between wealth and Olympic glory, specifically focusing on the Winter Games. It turns out that the “wealthiest discipline,” measured by average per-capita GDP per medal, is curling, followed closely by snowboarding, ski jumping and Nordic combined. Curling, with a per-capita GDP of about $39,000, would rank around the top 15 nations in the world.
What’s the discipline with the lowest per-capita GDP? Figure skating… go figure!
Sure, figure skating may seem like a sport for the wealthy, complete with bedazzled leotards and classical music, but the fact that figure skating is the “poorest” discipline should tell us something about the inequality of the Winter Games. Even this per-capita GDP is somewhat misleading, however, as the “poorer” countries tend to be those that have some of the higher wealth disparities in the world, with the nation’s wealthier citizens generally being the ones that actually compete in the Olympics, only further perpetuating the disparity.
Every four years, the Winter Olympics are broadcast to the world, and, every four years, we watch rich countries assert their dominance on the developing nations of the world. I’m not saying that the Summer Olympics don’t exhibit many of the same wealth barriers to entry, but I think their discriminatory scope is considerably smaller. They have a considerably larger number of sports where developing nations not only have a chance to compete, but also a chance to win.
What are we supposed to do about it?
I’m not really sure. Maybe winter sports are just made for the wealthy.
I try my hardest to watch the Winter Olympics every four years. I’m not sure if it’s my patriotic spirit or love for Olympic drinking games, but, inevitability, every four years, I end up spending half the time trying to Google the rules as I watch. I’m still not quite sure how curling works, and the scoring system for figure skating will never make sense to me. But hey, Brazil 2016 is only two years away.
Dillon Patel is a Trinity sophomore. His column runs every other Monday. Send Dillon a message on Twitter @thecasualdevil.