The Winter Olympics have seen it all: euphoric highs; crushing lows; the scandalous; the tragic; and everything in between. They started a bit later than the summer games, as the first winter games were held in 1926 in Chamonix, France, but the reputation they have built over each Olympic year has made the Winter Games stand out on its own in comparison to its summer counterpart. Particularly in recent years, we have seen the Winter Olympics be witness to some of the most triumphant performances in the history of the modern Olympics, period. Canada winning more gold medals than every other nation on home soil in 2010, the gold medal figure skating victory of a then 15-year-old Tara Lipinski, and the Miracle on Ice at the 1980 games in Lake Placid are timeless examples. In other words, the Winter Games are worth watching in awe based entirely on their own merit, even if not as many countries compete and some may consider them to be in the shadow of the Summer Games.
On this list, we’ll be counting down the last 10 Winter Olympics prior to the ongoing games in Sochi, ranking each Olympic year from worst to best. From the 1976 games in Innsbruck, Austria, to the last Winter Olympics in 2010 in Vancouver, we’ll be taking a look back on the Winter Olympics that have best captivated worldwide audiences and the memories of which still leave a huge impression on us to this day. Whether playing winter sports are your thing or not, it’s hard to deny that the Winter Olympics give a great sense of entertainment and thrill to billions of viewers in a season of the year that some absolutely despise. Let’s look back on the past 10 winter games prior to Sochi and see which ones have left the biggest and most lasting impression.
10 Sarajevo - 1984
Now a part of Bosnia, Sarajevo was at the time still in Yugoslavia – hence significant security concerns prior to the games – and the country gave a relatively disappointing performance at the 1984 games the city hosted, at least in the grand scheme of things. The country – the second straight city in a Communist country to host the games after Moscow in 1980 – won only 1 silver medal, with Jure Franko finishing second in the men’s giant slalom. However, it was also Yugoslavia’s first ever Winter Olympic medal, and Franko became a hero across the country. The big winners were East Germany and the Soviet Union, with 24 and 25 medals respectively; nine of which were gold for the former and six were gold for the latter.
9 Innsbruck - 1976
With heightened security like the games had never seen before at the time – largely due to the Munich Massacre of 1972’s summer games – Innsbruck, Austria hosted the winter games in 1976 following Denver withdrawing after initially being selected to host. During the games, the Soviet Union topped the medal table with 27, including 13 gold – winning the gold in men’s ice hockey for the fourth consecutive time while Canada refused to send a hockey team to Innsbruck. Austria ended up finishing seventh on the medal table, with six medals to their name including two golds in alpine skiing and ski jumping respectively.
8 Salt Lake - 2002
Despite Salt Lake’s controversial selection as host for the 2002 games amid bribery from the city’s leadership during the selection process, the 2002 Winter Olympics were among the most financially successful and highest viewed winter games ever. However, it wasn’t without controversy during the games either: doping accusations in cross-country skiing led Russia to threaten to leave the Salt Lake Olympics entirely, and a judging controversy in figure skating led to the awarding of dual gold medals for both Canada and Russia. For the U.S., it was a successful Olympics, winning 34 medals – 10 of them gold – and finishing third in the standings.
7 Turin - 2006
The second time Italy hosted the winter games (the first was in Cortina d’Ampezzo in 1956) was one that very much improved the image of its host city, Turin, to the rest of the world: making it one of Italy’s top tourist cities almost overnight. As for the games itself, it was a successful one for Germany, the United States and Austria; with Germany finishing at the top of the medal table with 11 golds out of 29 overall medals, and the latter two each winning nine gold medals out of 25 and 23 respectively. The home nation finished ninth overall, with only five gold medals out of 11 to show for it – luger Armin Zöggeler was one of the lucky ones.
6 Calgary - 1988
The first time Canada got a chance to host the winter games was in the country’s oil capital: Calgary hosted an Olympics that, like Montreal’s hosting of the 1976 summer games, again failed to see Canada win a gold medal on home soil despite the Calgary games being the most expensive Olympics ever put together at that time. However, the games were a series of firsts for other countries: Dutch speed skater Yvonne van Gennip winning three gold medals, Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards being a ‘heroic failure’ for Great Britain, and the debut of the Jamaican bobsled team – the subject of a well-known John Candy movie. “Cool Runnings”, anyone?
5 Nagano - 1998
The last Winter Olympics of the 20th century were held in Japan, and saw quite a few Winter Olympic firsts, both good and bad. The youngest champion in Winter Olympic history – figure skater Tara Lipinski – was crowned, snowboarding and women’s ice hockey were introduced, and NHL players were allowed to compete at the Olympics for the first time. However, a nasty flu epidemic hit the games hard, and Canadian snowboarder Ross Rebagliati had his gold medal rescinded – and then given back to him – after marijuana was found in his system. For Japan, they finished seventh on the medal standings with 10 medals; five of which were gold.
4 Lillehammer - 1994
The 1994 winter games in Lillehammer had some definite highlights during the actual games. Speed skater Dan Jansen finally won a gold medal, Norway dominated in the men’s combined alpine skiing, etc. But when all is said and done, it may unfortunately be more well-remembered by some for the figure skating event featuring Nancy Kerrigan after she was clubbed in the knee by a hitman hired by Tonya Harding and her ex-husband prior to the games. The event – where Kerrigan won silver and Harding finished eighth – is still the most watched Winter Olympic event in U.S. history. Always a Winter Olympic heavyweight, Norway finished second on the medal table with 26 including 10 gold.
3 Albertville - 1992
The 1992 winter Olympics in Albertville was the third time France had hosted the winter games, and the 1992 games were significant in the case of two countries in particular: Germany were competing as a unified team following the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, and six of the former Soviet republics competed as “The Unified Team”, using the Olympic flag and having no national anthem playing after winning medals. The two newly unified countries ended up topping the medal standings. As for France, they finished seventh with nine medals, three of which were gold medals in biathlon, freestyle skiing, and nordic combined.
2 Lake Placid - 1980
While there were other highlights from various countries competing in the games – Eric Heiden winning five gold medals in speed skating and Hanni Wenzel of tiny Liechtenstein winning gold medals in alpine skiing – the 1980 games in Lake Placid, New York have largely been defined over the years by the victory of the U.S. over the behemoth Soviet Union hockey team, more commonly known as the “Miracle on Ice”, which led to the underdog U.S. team beating Finland in the gold medal game. For the games themselves, it was the second time Lake Placid had hosted the Olympics, and the first time the winter games were held using artificial snow.
1 Vancouver - 2010
When pundits declare one year of the Winter Olympics as being possibly the greatest ever, even after a tragic death prior to the games and glaring technical screw-ups during the opening ceremony, you know you did something incredibly right. In the case of Vancouver 2010, that is certainly true: the host country won the most gold medals in its history, getting 14 golds out of 26 medals overall, capped off by a thrilling overtime victory by the Canadian men’s hockey team in the gold medal game against the U.S. – as well as golds for national heroes Alexandre Bilodeau, Jon Montgomery, and Charles Hamelin.