An American Surge in Old School Winter Events

At the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, the United States won more medals than any other nation for the first time since the 1932 Games in Lake Placid. It was an incredible achievement, considering how far the country’s program has come over the past few decades.

Average Medals Won Over the Past 10 Winter Olympics

Medals, Past 10 Winter Olympics

* Germany includes East and West Germany; USSR includes all countries that were formerly part of the Soviet Union

While the two major Olympic powers of the past 40 years, Germany and the former Soviet nations, have remained relatively consistent, the American medal count has steadily climbed.

One reason for this recent success is somewhat obvious. Over the past 10 Winter Games, the number of events has more than doubled. New sports such as freestyle skiing, short track speed skating and snowboarding certainly have helped the United States in the medal count. For non-American athletes, having snowboarding added to the Olympic program is kind of like your eight-year old kid introducing Angry Birds to the family’s game night; you’ve got no shot. U.S. snowboarders have captured 17 of 48 (35%) possible medals since 2002. All of the hype surrounding these new, exciting events has overshadowed a very interesting development that has been just as vital to the Americans’ rise atop the Winter Olympic medal count.

There are 10 sports that have been represented in every Winter Olympics over the past 50 years: alpine skiing, biathlon, bobsleigh, cross country skiing, figure skating, ice hockey, luge, Nordic combined, ski jumping and speed skating. Historically, American athletes have struggled in many of these classic sports. To date, the country has never medaled in the biathlon and has won only one medal each in cross country skiing and the ski jump (a bronze in the first ever Olympics in 1924). Recently, however, there has been a surge for the United States in other classic events.

After failing to ever win a single medal in any Nordic combined event, America took home four medals in the sport in 2010. The past three Olympics have resulted in six bobsleigh medals for Team USA after winning zero during the previous 10 Winter Games. Shut out in the first nine Games in which their sport was offered, American lugers suddenly have amassed four medals in the last four Olympics. Even alpine skiing, long considered a strength for the United States, yielded an all-time national high of eight medals in Vancouver; as many as American alpine skiers had won in the previous four Olympics combined.

Over the past three Winter Games, the U.S. has won 55 medals in the 10 “standard” sports, nearly matching the former Soviet nations’ total of 61. Over the prior 12 Olympics, dating back to the USSR’s initial appearance in the Games, the ratio exceeded 2 ½ to 1 (265-97). A lot of Team USA’s recent success in the Winter Olympics surely can be attributed to the addition of popular American sports as medal events, but even without them, the United States has made tremendous strides in the more traditional sports that were once dominated by other countries.

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