Evolution of the Winter Olympic Games

The recent PyeongChang Games saw many historic firsts: 6 countries (Ecuador, Eritrea, Kosovo, Malaysia, Nigeria, and Singapore) making their debuts in the Winter Games. And of course, North and South Korean athletes competing alongside each other in a historic women's hockey match.

Gender participation and sporting disciplines have evolved significantly throughout Olympic history. As new Olympic history is created, let’s take a look at the origin and history of the Winter Olympic Games.

Origin of the Winter Olympics

Before the conception of the Winter Olympic Games, the Nordic Games were the first international competition devoted to winter sports and took place between 1901 and 1926. Viktor Balck, the organizer of these games, advocated for many years to have winter sporting events in the Olympics. Finally, he succeeded and figure skating was introduced to the London Summer Olympics in 1908.

A few years later, others petitioned to create a separate Olympics for just winter sports. Due to the logistics of finding facilities and the two world wars, the first official Winter games would not take place until 1924. For many years, the Winter and Summer games would be hosted in the same year - albeit at different times of the year. It was not until 1994 when the two year offset was introduced.

Due to the timing of the winter games (typically at the beginning of the calendar year), they have often been hosted by cities in the northern hemisphere.

Olympic Sporting Events are Diversifying

While the number of sports and disciplines (umbrella groupings for events) only change periodically, the number of events have continually increased over the years. During the recent Pyeongchang games, mass-start speed skating, big air snowboarding, and doubles curling were added to the list of competitive winter sports.

Some sports such as skiing, skating, and curling have been staples in the Olympic games ever since the first Winter Olympic Games took place. Other disciplines were added much later, such as the Biathlon which first took place in the 1960 Winter Games in Squaw Valley.

With the recent growth of new sporting events, the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the governing body of the Olympic Games, began to introduce procedures that would allow the games to more readily adapt to the current state of sports. In 2014, as part of the the Olympic Agenda 2020, the IOC approved an initiative that gave each Games's organizing committee autonomy to add new sports more easily. While the next winter games (to be held in Beijing) will not be adding any new sports, the upcoming 2020 summer Tokyo games will be the first to take advantage of this new policy with the addition of five new sports: baseball/softball, karate, surfing, skateboarding, and climbing. The goal with these new initiatives to encourage the evolution of the Olympics as the world’s tastes in sports evolve.

Closing the Olympic Gender Gap

The numbers of nations and athletes that participate in the Olympics have increased gradually over the years. Female participation in the Olympic Games has increased over time. During the first games, only 11 (4% of all athletes) female athletes competed in the winter games. In the most recent games, 40% of competitors were women. Generally there has been a wider gender gap of female to male events at the Winter Games than at the Summer Games.

For many sporting disciplines, female participation typically lagged behind males. For instance, skiing was an Olympic sport in the first 1924 games but was open to female participation until 1936. This lag is also reflected in the representation of women in the IOC. Although the IOC has existed since 1894, two years before the first Summer Games, it wasn’t until 1981 until the first female would join the committee. Today, only 20 women make up the IOC body (which contains 106 members). While having a goal requiring 20% of its members to be females, the IOC been unable to achieve this goal to date.

However there is hope for gender equality in sport in the future. In recent times, the gender gap of Olympic sporting events have dramatically decreased. The IOC established the Women in Sport Commission to encourage more traditional countries to allow females to compete in sports. As the gap of sporting events for male-associated and female-associated sports continues to decrease, it is hopeful that the Olympics could become more gender balanced in the future.

As the games continue to adapt to the current state of athletics with the addition of new sports and initiatives to encourage more female participation, it will continue to present an example of unity and perseverance on a world stage.