The most impressive performance at the 2018 Pyeonchang Olympics has been the collective performance of the athletes of Norway. With a few days left, Norway has captured 33 medals in total, a little over 14% of all medals awarded.
What makes that incredible, of course, is that Norway is home to a mere 5.3 million people. That’s roughly equivalent to the population of St. Petersburg or Philadelphia.
Over the course of the modern Olympics, the US has managed to win 15% of all medals awarded in the Winter and Summer Olympics combined. So far in Pyeonchang, however, the US has won at roughly half that rate, although it is typically stronger in the summer events.
Still, there’s Norway, with less than one-tenth of one percent of the world’s population, with all those medals. That can’t be explained just by latitude or snowfall. Colorado and Minnesota, after all, each have more inhabitants.
Nor does money seem to explain the relative performances. Norway’s total economy is only about 2% of the US economy. Even adjusted for population the two countries are pretty close, ranking 6th and 9th, respectively. And while the US funds its athletes, as it does most everything, through corporate and private donations, as if these somehow don’t come out of the pockets of taxpayers and consumers, branded athletes don’t appear to be living lives of deprivation.
What really differentiates Norway from everyone else, it seems, is that it ranks number 1 in the World Happiness Index. The US ranks 14th, while Canada, which also has more medals than the US, ranks 7th.
Perhaps most telling, however; according to the CIA the US has the 40th least equal income distribution in the world, as measured by the GINI coefficient, worse than countries like Cameroon, Argentina, and Thailand. We’re a little less “unequal” than Jamaica and Saudi Arabia, admittedly, but Norway ranks 139th in financial inequality, while Canada ranks 112th, and Germany, the country with the second most medals, ranks 137th.
Statistics, of course, can be coincidental more than causal. There are an infinite number of variables involved in determining Olympic performance. The Norwegian athletes do seem happy, however. When Ragnhild Mowinckel won silver in the women’s downhill, no one seemed more surprised and unentitled than she did. Lindsey Vonn also showed the sportsmanship for which she has become known over her long and illustrious career, although many American headlines suggested she “settled” for third place. Even her father suggested she needed to take more risk.
I wonder, in fact, if an individuality index isn’t at the heart of all of this. Throughout the Games the Norwegians have talked exclusively about the team’s performance and supporting one another, and I suspect that’s how the people of Norway see it. American observers, on the other hand, seem intent on turning every athlete into either a celebrity or a bust, just like we evaluate our politicians.
We’re a “click” nation. Perhaps that’s why we’re not as happy as the Norwegians in the end.
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