The 22nd Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia have come to a close and what a tremendous 2 weeks it's been; drama, levity, triumph and disappointment, glory and defeat, winners and losers, it had it all.
Like every Olympiad, Sochi had its moments of surprise, of predictions met, of expectations fulfilled and heartbreaks unforeseen. In short, it was exactly the kind of spectacle of athletic competition that the Olympics embodies so uniquely.
As with any sporting event, there are inevitably those who rise to the top of the podium, and those who can only look upon it with envy and bitter-sweet emotion, and it's these disparate experiences that make watching the Olympics so awesome for couch-bound dumplings like me.
In tribute to the shining excellence of athletic performance I've just witnessed, here are my impressions about the top 10 medal winning nations at Sochi; (note that these totals follow the traditional Olympic criteria of ranking countries by virtue of their Gold medal status and not simply via total medals earned).
10 France – 4 Gold, 4 Silver, 7 Bronze (15 total)
The French have participated in every Winter Games since hosting the inaugural event in 1924 in Chamonix, and have managed to account themselves pretty well in that time, though they are by no means considered an Olympic powerhouse nation; with his 3 Gold medals in Grenoble in 1968, Jean-Claude Killy remains the country's highest individual gold medalist at a single Olympiad. With a sizable contingent of 105 athletes at Sochi, the French earned podium status in several sports including Biathlon (2 Gold/1 Silver/1 Bronze), Freestyle Skiing (1 Gold/2 Silver/2 Bronze), Snowboard (1 Gold/1 Bronze), Alpine Skiing (1 Silver/1 Bronze), Cross Country Skiing (1 Bronze) as well as Ski Jumping (1 Bronze).
9 Austria – 4 Gold, 8 Silver, 5 Bronze (17 total)
Austria is another Winter Olympic nation that has traditionally done extremely well at the Games, especially in Alpine Skiing in which they have won more medals than any other nation in history (an incredible 105 in total). Austrian athletes have appeared at every Winter Olympiad since the first Games in 1924. Team Austria sent an impressive 131 athletes to Sochi, and is considered a dominant Olympic power and rightfully so based on their considerable medal haul. Austrian athletes earned a total of 17 medals at Sochi including Alpine Skiing (3 Gold/4 Silver/2 Bronze), Biathlon (1 Silver/1 Bronze), Nordic Combined (1 Bronze), Luge (1 Silver), Ski Jumping (2 Silver) and Snowboard (1 Gold/1 Bronze). For such a relatively small nation, the Austrians continue to acquit themselves with distinction in Winter Olympic competition.
8 Belarus – 5 Gold, 1 Bronze (6 total)
Appearing as an independent country for the first time at the Lillehammer Games in 1994, Belarus is obviously one of a number of fledgling Winter Olympic nations, and sent only 27 athletes to Sochi. Belarus is nonetheless considered a country of Nordic sporting enthusiasts, and should continue to see their Olympic potential rise in the years to come. Although earning a total of only 6 medals in Sochi in just two events, Biathlon (3 Gold/1 Bronze) and Free Style Skiing (2 Gold), Belarus should still be regarded as an up-and-coming nation for future Winter Games, as even this small medal haul was good enough to see them reach top 10 status at the Sochi Olympiad and their impressive 5 Gold medals is by far the best showing to date for this small Eastern European nation.
7 Switzerland – 6 Gold, 3 Silver, 2 Bronze (11 total)
Yet another country that saw their Winter Olympic debut in 1924, the Swiss have a long tradition of excellence at the Games, which is even more impressive considering they are such a small nation. Sending a large contingent of 163 athletes to Sochi, Switzerland found themselves among the top 10 medal winners with 11 in total, despite disappointing results in some sports. The Swiss gained podium status in 6 events including Alpine Skiing (2 Gold/1 Bronze), Cross Country Skiing (2 Gold), Snowboard (2 Gold/1 Silver), Bobsleigh (1 Silver) and Biathlon (1 Silver). However it was their remarkable first ever medal (Bronze) in Women's Ice Hockey that should serve notice that the Swiss remain a considerable Winter Olympic threat, as this unexpected result demonstrates their serious medal potential in numerous Winter Olympic disciplines, even those in which they weren't expected to stand out.
6 Germany – 8 Gold, 6 Silver, 5 Bronze (19 total)
The Germans have historically dominated in numerous Winter Olympic events, and although their 6th place status in Sochi is certainly nothing to be ashamed of, they did have some disappointing finishes throughout the Games and were probably hoping to be among the top 5. With 153 athletes, Germany once again fielded a powerful team in numerous disciplines and found themselves atop the podium in many of their traditionally strong events, including Luge (4 Gold/1 Silver), Alpine Skiing (1 Gold/1 Silver/1 Bronze), Nordic Combined (1 Gold/1 Silver/1 Bronze) and Ski Jumping (2 Gold) as well as Snowboard (1 Silver/1 Bronze) and Figure Skating (1 Bronze). Germany will remain a Winter Games powerhouse and will no doubt be looking to build on their success in Sochi at future Olympiads.
5 The Netherlands – 8 Gold, 7 Silver, 9 Bronze (24 total)
The Dutch have an impressive Winter Olympic history of victory, no more so than in their signature event of Long Track Speed Skating; prior to Sochi, they had won 86 total Winter Games medals with 82 of them earned in this discipline. With only 41 athletes at Sochi, they nonetheless continued their Winter Olympiad dominance this year with a record medal haul of 24 in total, though they managed this in only two events, Long Track Speed Skating (an incredible 8 Gold, 7 Silver and 8 Bronze) as well as Short Track Speed Skating (1 Bronze). While they showed no signs of losing their stranglehold on the big oval, The Netherlands will no doubt have to improve their results among a variety of other events if they want to remain among the Winter Olympic powerhouses, as many other nations demonstrated their own prowess in these events, such as traditional foes Canada, the United States and Germany, as well as up-and-comer nations China and North Korea.
4 The United States of America – 9 Gold, 7 Silver, 12 Bronze (28 total)
Long a perennial giant at the Winter Games, the U.S. sent the largest team to Sochi with 230 athletes representing the Red, White and Blue, and had enormous hopes (not to mention pressure) to expand on their showings in Vancouver 2010, which saw the Americans finish with the most total medals at 37. Appearing at every Winter Olympiad since 1924, the U.S. has one of the best records of victory in the history of the Games and fielded some of the top ranked athletes across dozens of events this year, though many of them failed to achieve winning status.
The Americans' medal haul ranged across events including Alpine Skiing (2 Gold/1 Silver/2 Bronze), Freestyle Skiing (3 Gold/2 Silver/2 Bronze), Snowboard (3 Gold/2 Bronze), Figure Skating (1 Gold/1 Bronze), Bobsleigh (1 Silver/3 Bronze), Skeleton (1 Silver/1 Bronze), Short Track Speed Skating (1 Silver) and Luge (1 Bronze). There is no question the U.S. was expecting to do considerably better at Sochi than in Vancouver, no more so than among their Men's and Women's hockey teams, which both endured bitter defeats at the hands of their ultra nemesis Team Canada 4 years ago. Unfortunately the Women's team suffered a heart-wrenching defeat to the Canadians who rallied from a two-goal deficit late in the third period and scored the winning goal in overtime to literally stun their American counterparts who had to settle for a bittersweet Silver medal.
24 hours later, the Men's team could not surmount a 1-0 lead by Team Canada, who put on a clinic of defensive prowess that smothered the highly touted U.S. offense. The Americans' disappointment was still evident only a day later as they succumbed to Finland in a crushing 5-0 defeat that saw their dismal effort lose out on the Bronze medal. This only heightened Team USA's disappointment at Sochi, as they were considered one of the favorites to win Gold in the event. As a result, even 4th place status in total medals earned seemed like cold comfort.
3 Canada – 10 Gold, 10 Silver, 5 Bronze (25 total)
With their record-setting 14 Gold medal victories on home soil four years ago, Team Canada was determined to improve on what has been a triumphant decade of Olympic competition. Shipping off their largest ever Winter Games contingent of 221 athletes, Canada sent notice that they would settle for nothing less than top podium status across a multitude of events. Although they didn't best their Gold medal total from Vancouver, the Canadians did manage to achieve a top 3 ranking in total medals, which should only build on their expectations for success at future Olympiads. Their 25 medals included Freestyle Skiing (4 Gold/4 Silver/1 Bronze), Curling (2 Gold), Bobsleigh (1 Gold), Short Track Speed Skating (1 Gold/1 Silver/1 Bronze), Snowboard (1 Silver/1 Bronze), Long Track Speed Skating (1 Silver/1 Bronze), Figure Skating (3 Silver) and Alpine Skiing (1 Bronze).
While the nation saw its share of disappointments, (particularly in Men's Figure Skating where reigning World Champions Patrick Chan and Ice Dance pair of Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir lost out via technical marks for their anticipated Golds, while top ranked Short Track skater Charles Hamelin fell during the 1000 meter qualifying round and failed to advance), it was more than made up for with their successes in their signature sport of Ice Hockey. Both the Men's and Women's teams defeated their arch rivals Team USA to claim Gold, none more exciting that the Canadian women's enthralling 3-2 come-from-behind victory late in the third period and then in overtime, that left their American rivals literally sobbing as they received their Silver medals. Just a day later, the Men 's team followed suit with a smothering 1-0 victory that absolutely stifled the much hailed US offense and handed the Americans a bitter blow at Sochi. There is now no doubting that Canada has emerged from the shadow of its more infamous North American ally to become an incontestable Olympic powerhouse in its own right.
2 Norway – 11 Gold, 5 Silver, 10 Bronze (26 total)
Though you might have been hard pressed to find anyone who could have predicted that Norway would achieve one of its best ever Winter Olympic finishes in Sochi, they are unlikely to have been aware of this sporting-mad nation's Olympic history. With a respectable 119 athletes descending on Russia, the Norwegians were looking to top the podium in their traditional Winter Olympiad strengths that have seen them become the most successful country ever to compete at the Games, earning an astonishing 306 total medals including 107 Gold since their first appearance in 1924.
Sochi saw Norway extend its winning ways in Cross Country Skiing (5 Gold/2 Silver/4 Bronze), Biathlon (3 Gold/1 Silver/2 Bronze), Nordic Combined (2 Gold/1 Silver/1 Bronze), Alpine Skiing (1 Gold/2 Bronze), Snowboard (1 Silver) and Ski Jumping (1 Bronze). A second place standing in total medals won with 26 (tying their best-ever medal haul from their host Games in Lillehammer in 1994) only solidifies Norway's incredible Winter Olympic performance record that remains the benchmark for all other competitive nations.
1 Russia – 13 Gold, 11 Silver, 9 Bronze (33 total)
As per usual with most host nations, the Russian Federation was carrying the enormous burden of intense pressure to succeed in Sochi, particularly as its Winter Olympic performances of late have not matched their once supremely dominant record as the former Soviet Union. It's first Winter Olympics as the newly re-branded Russian Federation after the dissolution of the Soviet empire was in Lillehammer in 1994. Sending the third largest athletic contingent to their home Games with 225, the Russians were promised 'the greatest' Winter Olympics in history by President Vladimir Putin, and they largely delivered.
Russian athletes hit the podium across more events than any other nation in Sochi, earning victories in Figure Skating (3 Gold/1 Silver/1 Bronze), Short Track Speed Skating (3 Gold/1 Silver/1 Bronze), Snowboard (2 Gold/1 Silver/1 Bronze), Bobsleigh (2 Gold), Cross Country Skiing (1 Gold/3 Silver/1 Bronze), Biathlon (1 Gold/2 Silver/1 Bronze), Skeleton (1 Gold/1 Bronze), Long Track Speed Skating (1 Silver/2 Bronze), Luge (2 Silver) and Freestyle Skiing (1 Bronze). The one major disappointment had to lie with the Russian Men's hockey team that was bearing the weight of huge expectations to improve on their recent lackluster performances in Winter Olympiads, which have been a far cry from their former Soviet-era supremacy in this event. However, the Russians were unable to sustain the early potential from their round robin successes, and failed to gain medal status for the third straight Winter Games, rendering their fans literally speechless after losing their quarter final match to Finland. Nonetheless, with so many questions hanging over these Games, the results of Russian athletes did more than enough to stifle critics and give the nation a well deserved sense of pride in their accomplishments.
With the spectacular closing ceremonies signaling the end of the 22nd Winter Games in Sochi, all eyes now turn to PyeongChang, South Korea in 2018 for the next installment of Winter Olympic glory.
See you all there.