*I feel a little ashamed that I didn’t watch these games. I was certainly old enough to know that it’s a big deal when the Olympics come to your country, even for a country as big and rich as the United States. I just didn’t, and I am sorry, Utah.
First off, there’s the simple fact of how many Winter Games have been held. These are the 22nd Winter Games. The last Summer Games in London were the 30th. And that’s with the “extra” 1994 Olympics when the Summer and Winter Games first went to different schedules. The first (modern) Summer Olympics were in 1896 in Athens, naturally. The first Winter Games weren’t held until 1924 in Chamonix, France. Just the fact I have to point out where Chamonix is, whereas it’s superfluous with Athens, should tell you enough. But, just to illustrate the point, in 1926, Chamonix had 3,811 residents. Athens, in 1896, had 123,000 residents. A far cry from today’s metro population of just under four million, but certainly a major step up. This is not an isolated case, either.
The average population of a Winter Games host: 238,653.* Not a bad size city, but not one you would expect to be a “world city.” The average population of a Summer Games host: 4,333,881.** So, yeah, I think that goes without saying that the Summer Games are more demanding, as far as a city is concerned. Or at least more glamorous. I mean, the smallest host cities in Summer Games history are still bigger than the average Winter Games host. It’s a stark contrast.
*I took an average of all the host cities using the closest census I could find, and here is my spreadsheet. I had to use a modern-day figure for Garmisch-Partenkirchen. I also did not count Cortina d’Ampezzo or Sapporo twice, as their first games were cancelled due to World War II. Squaw Valley was a bit of a drag on these numbers, I’m sure. Squaw Valley is not really a town, but instead a ski resort. There was only one permanent resident at the time of those Games. It boggles the mind that could happen as late as 1960. The biggest city was Sapporo in 1972, and the only winter host that broke a million.
**Also with war-canceled games removed. Biggest city to host: Beijing in 2008 with 19.6 million people. Smallest was that first Athens games, the next smallest being either Stockholm or Antwerp in 1912 and 1920 respectively, both estimates being right around 300,000.
There are a few reasons for this, of course. For one, basically everywhere people live with any real density has a summer. That’s not necessarily true for winter, at least not in the sense that you think of it in terms of Olympics. Because of that, naturally there are more summer athletes to be had and, related to that, more interested spectators. You probably aren’t going to find too many hardcore Winter Games fans around the equator, you know? And not only is there a climate difference, but there is a pretty clear class difference, too. Winter sports (generally) require much more equipment than summer sports, and thus are generally much more expensive. And that’s before you even get into the specialized venues to use that equipment in. Sure, you can probably find ice rinks scattered here and there different places. But when’s the last time you ran into a municipal bobsled or luge track? You might find a skate park fairly easily, but you don’t normally just stumble across a snowboard halfpipe or slopestyle course. It’s quite a bit easier to find your way to your local school’s track or gym. Or just start running, with or without shoes.
Which brings us to our next point. Not only do the Summer Olympics pull in more athletes, they are just so much bigger in scope in every attractive way for a city. The one way the Winter Olympics are just a big (if not bigger)? Cost, of course. It’s expensive to either make or manage that much snow, build those tracks and courses, etc. You get more bang for your buck with the Summer Games. Now, granted, Sochi has many issues of it’s own that has raised the cost beyond that of every other Winter Olympics combined. Like major security concerns, not actually being located in a wintery climate zone, good old Russian corruption, and the like. But that doesn’t change the fact that these Olympics are the most expensive in history. There are 98 events being staged this year, with a price tag of $51 billion. That comes down to $520,408,163 per event. Pretty pricey, right? The next most expensive Olympics were Beijing, which cost $43 billion. But, that covered 302 events. Price per event: $142,384,105. Pricey, sure, but still about a quarter of the cost per event. For completeness’ sake, London had a total price tag of almost $14 billion to stage 302 events, coming out to $46,357,616 per event. The Brits come out looking like penny pinchers in this scenario.*
*If this is the sort of thing that really grabs your attention, check it all out here.
So, yes, the Winter Olympics are definitely the B Show. Should that dampen your enthusiasm for these Games? Hell no! The Winter Olympics are great. You get to watch people do things on ice and snow that you couldn’t pull off in the best conditions in your wildest dreams. In short track speed skating, you get everything good about racing cars* in short, digestible bursts. As mentioned earlier, the Olympic hockey tournament is probably the single best event the Olympics has ever had, and it’s been made even better by inviting the NHL guys.
*The big wrecks and jostling.
Let me write some more about hockey. It is maybe the most balanced international tournament out there outside of the World Cup. It, along with soccer, is one sport that had international powers pretty well from the start. Every Olympic year, you know you can expect the United States, Canada, and Russia* to be powerhouses. And then you have these smaller nations that strike somewhat out of nowhere. Your Swedens, Czech Republics, Finlands, etc. And, inevitably, one of the big boys will drop the ball, and one of these smaller nations will rise up. Look no further than the first year the NHL was invited in Nagano. The US totally blew it, losing in the first round to the Czech Republic and finishing sixth. Canada finished just off the podium in fourth. Your medalists? The Czechs took gold, Russians silver, and Finland bronze. It wasn’t as bad in Vancouver, with the Canadians taking gold over the Americans with silver. But Russia finished sixth, and honestly probably didn’t really play well enough to finish that high.
*Or one of Russia’s Communist forms.
Oh, and don’t think Russians don’t know that, either. After that sort of showing in Canada, there is only one acceptable outcome in Sochi. It’s either gold or Russia will burn with rioting. I have no doubt. It’s not unlike when the US finished with a bronze medal in basketball in Athens. Only about four or five times more serious. If Russia doesn’t win this tournament, it could make Vancouver look tame.
How can you not love a tournament with that much on the line? I absolutely intend to being glued to whatever outlet I can find to watch all of those games. The men start on Wednesday, and you had better make time to watch those games. Don’t sleep on the women, though. After the show the Canadian women put on in Vancouver, you know other teams will be gunning for them with all they’ve got. Nobody likes to be shown up like that. They drop the puck tomorrow.
All things considered, the Winter Olympics aren’t as popular or widespread as the Summer Games, no doubt. But you would be a fool not to take notice of them, because the entertainment value does not drop one bit. Besides, you don’t want Vladimir Putin to find out you didn’t like his Games, do you? Because he’s watching. He’s watching everything.