The Winter Olympics seem to sometimes live in the shadows of its bigger, more wide-reaching Summer equivalent, but its goal and appeal is still incredibly important and unifying. Different countries have different highlights of their nation’s accomplishments at the winter games, whether it’s in ski jumping, hockey, figure skating, luge, or any other winter sport you could compete in for a medal.
The 10 countries on this list are the very cream of the crop in winter sports throughout the duration of the winter games’ existence, with a well-balanced total between gold, silver and bronze medals for each – though several have counts in the triple digits for all of them. Since some countries that are technically among the top 10 no longer exist, their medal totals are combined with those of the country they are now a part of – for example, East and West Germany’s totals are combined with Germany’s current total, Yugoslavia’s totals are combined with Serbia’s, and the Soviet Union’s totals are combined with Russia’s as well as the “Unified Team” that competed in the 1992 games in Albertville.
2014 will bring the world the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, giving these 10 countries a chance to bump up their medal count even more and give the rest of us the chance to be wowed by their athletes’ individual abilities – and if they’re lucky enough, win medals and instill a massive sense of national pride in the fans watching back home in their respective countries.
Furthermore, the Olympics are a jumping-off point for these athletes to become massive heroes in their home countries, or start off a career that can eventually be among the most celebrated in their sport. Either way, the Olympics can be beneficial for athletes’ development of their skills as well as national pride. Let’s take a look at the 10 countries that have used the winter games to the best of their advantage.
10 France - 94 medals (27 gold, 27 silver, 40 bronze)
France’s strongest sport in the winter games in terms of medal count is easily alpine skiing. The country has won 15 gold, 14 silver and 14 bronze medals all-time in that sport, and its last gold medal came in Torino in 2006 after Antoine Dénériaz won the men’s downhill event that year. France’s most successful Winter Olympics thus far has arguably been in 2002, when they won 11 medals – with Jean-Pierre Vidal and Carole Montillet striking gold in alpine skiing, Isabelle Blanc in snowboarding, and Marina Anissina and Gwendal Peizerat in figure skating, despite the fact that “the French Judge” was a bigger story for France’s participation in figure skating that year.
9 Italy - 106 medals (37 gold, 32 silver, 37 bronze)
The Italian team has competed at every single Olympics in both the summer and winter, and their track record on the podium is certainly proof of that: a sizeable portion of their medal haul in the winter games has come from cross-country skiing, with Stefania Belmondo and Manuela Di Centa winning four gold medals (and numerous silvers and bronzes) between them starting from the 1992 games in Albertville. The 1994 games in Lillehammer is arguably Italy’s best Olympic year to date: 20 medals – seven of them gold – and with the majority of them coming through cross-country skiing, alpine skiing and luge.
8 Switzerland - 127 medals (44 gold, 37 silver, 48 bronze)
Switzerland is the home base for the International Olympic Committee, and its success in the games – at least in the winter – has proven why this relatively small nation deserves its place among the best in the world. Many of the Swiss team’s medals over each Olympic year have come through alpine skiing or bobsled, with Vreni Schneider winning five medals in the former from 1988 to 1994, and Fritz Feierabend winning five between 1936 and 1952 in the latter. Ski jumper Simon Ammann – sometimes nicknamed “Harry Potter” thanks to his physical resemblance to the fictional wizard – is also one of Switzerland’s most successful winter athletes, winning two gold medals in Salt Lake in 2002 as well as two more in Vancouver in 2010.
7 Sweden - 129 medals (48 gold, 33 silver, 48 bronze)
The majority of Sweden’s success at the Winter Olympics over the years has come through events in cross-country skiing, trailing only Norway for the bragging rights of being the most successful country in the history of the winter games in that sport. So far, the 2006 Olympics in Torino was Sweden’s most successful to date, with golds in cross country skiing (two of which were won by Björn Lind), curling, and – perhaps most significantly – ice hockey, where a team led by Peter Forsberg, Mats Sundin and several other elite NHL stars got to the top of the podium thanks in part to Canada ending their tournament with a disastrous seventh-place finish.
6 Canada - 145 medals (52 gold, 45 silver, 48 bronze)
Speaking of Canada, they enjoyed by far their best Winter Olympics when they hosted it four years ago in Vancouver. After failing to win gold when they last hosted the winter games in Calgary (as well as when the summer games were held in Montreal), Canada topped the medal table in 2010 with 14 golds – a winter games record after starting off slowly that year. The high point was arguably Sidney Crosby scoring in overtime to topple the United States for the gold medal in men’s ice hockey. Canada’s success in the winter games has also come largely through speed skating – Cindy Klassen and Clara Hughes winning six medals between them – and figure skating, with the most significant moment there arguably being Jamie Sale and David Pelletier being awarded a joint gold medal with Russia following a well-publicized judging scandal.
5 Finland - 156 medals (41 gold, 59 silver, 56 bronze)
Finland’s biggest medal count in one Winter Olympic year came through the 1984 games in Sarajevo, with 13 medals and 4 golds among them. In 1984, the big winner for Finland was Marja-Liisa Kirvesniemi in cross-country skiing, winning three gold medals in the individual events (women’s 5 km, 10 km and 20 km) and a bronze in the team relay event. Cross-country skiing is by far Finland’s best sport in terms of medal count with 73, but they are currently the leading nation in ski jumping in the history of the winter games. Their last ski jumping gold came in 1998 when Jani Soininen came out on top in Nagano.
4 United States - 253 medals (87 gold, 95 silver, 71 bronze)
Team USA has seen their best medal counts at the Winter Olympics come through both the 2010 games in Vancouver and the 2002 games held on home soil in Salt Lake City. Notable gold wins in 2002 came from Sarah Hughes and Apolo Ohno, and in 2010 through Lindsey Vonn, Shaun White and Evan Lysacek. The Americans are currently the all-time leading Olympic nation in speed skating, figure skating, snowboarding, freestyle skiing, and skeleton – however, their best event thus far is speed skating, with Shani Davis having won two straight Olympic gold medals in 2006 and 2010 in the men’s 500 metres.
3 Norway - 303 medals (107 gold, 106 silver, 90 bronze)
While Norway garnered their highest medal count with 26 in 1994 on home soil in Lillehammer, it was in Salt Lake in 2002 where they struck gold more often than any other year. With 13 gold medals, the Norwegian team tied the Soviets for the most gold medals won in any Winter Olympics, until that record was broken by Canada in Vancouver in 2010. But in Salt Lake, Norway made the top of the podium thanks in large part to Ole Einar Bjørndalen (biathlon), Kjetil André Aamodt (alpine skiing), and Thomas Alsgaard (cross country skiing). On top of that, Norway is the all-time leading Olympic nation in Nordic combined and cross-country skiing.
2 Russia - 308 medals (123 gold, 92 silver, 93 bronze)
Russia may currently be the leading nation in Olympic history in synchronized swimming, but that is frankly peanuts compared to what they’ve been able to accomplish throughout the nation’s changing landscape between the Soviet Union and the Russia we know today. The Soviet Union’s most successful Winter Olympics was in Calgary in 1988, where they won 29 medals (11 gold among them) and topped the medal count leaderboard, winning golds largely in cross-country skiing, figure skating, and ice hockey. Today’s Russia saw their most successful winter games to date in Lillehammer in 1994, winning 23 medals with 11 gold, highlighted by Lyubov Yegorova in cross-country skiing and Alexei Urmanov in figure skating.
1 Germany - 348 medals (128 gold, 129 silver, 101 bronze)
Germany are top dogs on this list mainly due to the combination of the medal hauls between today’s Germany, West Germany, East Germany and the Unified Team of Germany. Before the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, East Germany was the most successful in the winter games, amassing 25 medals (including nine gold) in Calgary in 1988 – figure skater Katarina Witt and biathlete Frank-Peter Roetsch among the highlights of East Germany’s Olympics that year. Today, Germany’s biggest Winter Olympic success has come through the 2002 games in Salt Lake City, where they won 26 medals including 12 gold, with biathlon, bobsleigh and speed skating being among their best sports that year.
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