The Yellow Peril?: Asia's Impact on the Winter Olympics

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The Yellow Peril?: Asia's Impact on the Winter Olympics
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

When the score was announced for Kim Yu-Na, South Korea's darling figure skater, it signaled more than just her ascension to the top of the figure skating world.

The performance by Asian countries, and namely Northeast Asian countries (China, Japan, North Korea, South Korea, Mongolia and Taiwan), in the 2010 Winter Olympics was the best medal haul for the region at the Winter Games. 

But this performance is not an anomaly; it is simply part of the maturation of the winter sports programs of the Asian states and a process that began to show results 18 years ago.

The Winter Olympics have long been dominated by European states.  Make no mistake here that those countries, as well as the United States and Canada, continue to dominate the sports of the Winter Olympics.

But Asia is beginning to serve as staunch challengers to their counterparts from the West. These countries have come a long way.

The first Winter Olympics were held in Chamonix, France in 1924. At those Games, there were a total of 16 countries of which 14 were European states; the other two were the Canada and the United States. The 1928 Winter Olympics in Switzerland saw a little more diversity as Argentina, Mexico and Japan participated in the Games.

In 1936, Turkey would become the first Southwest Asian country to participate (although it could be argued that Lebanon is the first "true" Southwest Asian country to participate in 1952). Australia and New Zealand first participated in 1952, while the first African country (Morocco) did not send a constituency until 1968.

Despite the early entry of some non-European and non-North American countries, the participating states were still concentrated in those two areas. For example, South Korea did not join its Asian neighbor Japan in the Winter Games until 1948. 

The Republic of Korea, as it is officially known, has participated in every Winter Olympics since 1956.

The participatory record of North Korea, on the other hand, has been spotty.

The reason for the lack of participation beyond the “West” is two-fold. First off, many countries do not possess the physical geography to build and support winter sports programs. 

But, more importantly, prior to the end of World War II, most of the non-Western world was occupied by imperialist states. Even Japan had its own colonies on the Asian mainland.

Independence gave birth to new countries, and with that new potential Winter Olympics participants. Hence the rise in numbers after World War II.

China is a different story. Due to Western recognition of the Republic of China (Taiwan) as the “true” China, the People’s Republic of China chose not to participate in the Olympics.

The PRC did not participate until 1984 after much of the West had abandoned Taiwan in favor of the mainland. Taiwan, on the other hand, competed as “Republic of China” in 1972 and 1976, and then as “Chinese Taipei” since 1984.

While participation from Northeast Asia and other parts of the world has grown, success has been slow. Japan won the first ever medal for Asia (silver in the men’s slalom) at the 1956 Winter Games in Italy. 

It took another two Olympics for another medal to go to Asia, this time to North Korea; a silver in the women’s 3000 meters speed skating event.

It was not until Japan hosted the 1972 Winter Olympics in Sapporo that the first Asian gold medal was won. Kasaya Yukio grabbed gold as Japan swept the normal hill ski jump. 

This also marked the first time that any country outside of the West took more than one medal. It would be another 20 years before that happened again.

The 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France marked the beginning of a more prominent Asian presence at the Winter Games. 

Japan led the way with seven total medals, but South Korea began to make a name for itself in speed skating, winning two gold medals, one silver and one bronze. 

China walked away three silver medals, while North Korea took home a bronze; all four of these medals were in speed skating.

Since 1992, Asian countries, and in particular Northeast Asian countries, have steadily improved their performance in the Winter Games.

In 1992, Asia accounted for 8.77 percent of all medals and 5.26 percent of gold medals. Of the medals awarded to Asia states, only 20 percent (three) were gold.

Just two years later in Lillehammer, Asia saw their gold medals increase to seven, or 11.48 percent of all golds awarded. Gold medals constituted a plurality of the Asian medals (38.89 percent).

Aside from a disappointing showing in Salt Lake City in 2002, these numbers have remained constant. In Vancouver, Asia accounted for 12.79 percent of all golds, and 12.02 percent of all medals. The raw numbers are the highest they have ever been for Asia, with 11 golds and 31 total medals.

What is more impressive is the rise of South Korea. The Republic of Korea finished the 2010 Olympics with six gold medals (tied for fifth with Switzerland) and 14 total medals (seventh).

This is the most medals for any Asian state and tied for most golds for an Asian country, matching South Korea's 2006 gold medal count. This also reflects a steady improvement from 1992.

The other Asian countries also performed well. China finished with five golds (11 overall), the most Winter Olympic golds for the world's most populous country. Meanwhile Japan garnered only five medal, none of which were gold.

While Japan did improve from their dismal 2006 performance, the five Vancouver medals is still way down from their record 10 total medals and five golds from the 1998 Nagano Games.

Kazakhstan adds one more medal—a silver in the women's 15-kilometer biathlon—to the Asian total, although they are not part of Northeast Asia.

To add to this, Asia continues to be the only non-Western region to regularly win any medals at the Winter Olympics. In fact, other than Australia and New Zealand, no other region has won a medal. 

However, to be fair, Africa, the Caribbean, Central America, South America and Southwest Asia do not send a large number of athletes to the Winter Games (43 total athletes from 17 countries).

But it is worth noting participation in the Winter Olympics. Europe sends by far the most number of countries, as well as the most athletes. In 2010, Europe was represented by over 1800 athletes from 46 countries. 

North America was second with 422 athletes from three countries, while Asia sent 286 participants (236 from Northeast Asia) from 14 states.*

It is worth noting that since the successful run for Asian countries in 1992, Asia has seen its number of athlete participation nearly double from 150 to 286. 

While the break up of the Soviet Union did play a smart part in that increase, it should also be noted that Northeast Asian numbers jumped from 147 participants in 1992 to 236 in 2010, a 60-percent increase.

Furthermore, because Europe, as well as North America, send more athletes and participate in more sports across the board, they are more likely to “medal” at the Winter Olympics. 

But if the medal count is normalized by number of athletes, then Asia seems to be holding its own:

  • Asia : 1 medal for every 9 athletes (1 gold for every 26 athletes)
  • Europe : 1 medal for every 11 athletes (1 gold for every 35 athletes)
  • North America : 1 medal for every 7 athletes (1 gold for every 18 athletes).

Of course, some athletes win more than one medal and team events skew the numbers somewhat, but the point is that the rate is better for Asia compared to Europe.  The Asian medal rate is comparable to North America. 

When looking at just Northeast Asia, the numbers draw closer to North America (1 medal for every 8 athletes; 1 gold for every 21 athletes).

The only knock about the performance of Asia is that it is concentrated in one sport. Of the 30 medals won by Northeast Asian countries, 20 were in speed skating with five more in figure skating. 

China is the most diverse Asian state, with additional medals in freestyle skiing and women's curling (the women's curling team is quite good).

Nevertheless, when Aegukga—the South Korean national anthem—played for "Queen" Yu-na at the Pacific Coliseum, it signaled that the Winter Olympics, once dominated by the Nordic countries and Europe in general, are finally beginning to take on a truly global flavor.

As the programs in Asia, particularly China and South Korea, continue to improve, it is only a matter of time before South America begins to take home a few Winter medals.

One thing is for certain; with Pyeongchang, South Korea in a good position to gain the bid for the 2018 Winter Games, Asia has come to play and will continue to be a player in the Winter Olympics for the foreseeable future.

* – The countries of Armenia and Azerbaijan were grouped with Europe.  Bermuda was grouped with North America.

A majority of this article appeared on Uncle Popov's Drunken Sports Rant on Tuesday, March 2, 2010.

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