Taiwan, Norway, and the Olympic Spirit

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Friday March 16, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

The Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea have ended and along with the usual fanfare and emotion, the Games had their share of surprising victories and defeats.

However, one unusual and enlightening fact stood out: Norway, a nation with a population of barely 5.3 million people won the lion's share of the medals.

Ninety-two Olympic squads from around the world competed in 102 events in 15 sports for gold, silver and bronze medals. And although all competed, not all of them won.

As a matter of fact only 32 of the 92 teams came away with at least one medal.

More surprising also was that at the end of the Games, the medal count of the top five teams represented almost half the medals won. Norway won 39 medals, Germany 31, Canada 29, the US 23, and the Netherlands 20.

It was anticipated that Norway would do well, yet the results still mystified many and left pundits searching for "outlier" explanations to explain them.

One obvious proposed reason would be that these are the Winter Olympics. Norway with its location and terrain is well suited to such sports.

However that explanation fails to answer why nearby Sweden with almost twice the population only did half as well, and Finland with a similar population garnered just 6 medals.

What about all the other nations that have an abundant share of mountains, snow, and winter?

What about the Netherlands? It has only 17 million people and no mountains, yet it still ranked in the top five in the medal count.

How did these anomalies appear, when so many other nations always have a much bigger pool of talent to draw from?

Some suggest that because Norway draws from a small pool of talent, it is more dedicated.

Many Norwegian athletes have day jobs. They make up a team that has a "no jerks allowed" team mentality; there is no room for "prima donnas."

Certainly, when you win 39 medals, it is hard for any one person to claim the pedestal even if the performance can often be more individual than for the team.

Others said that while Norway has only a pool of people; it is a very desirable place to live.

It not only has a high GDP value per capita but it also has a strong healthcare system, while those who dislike the word "socialism" again try to debate such reasoning.

Regardless of the reasons, the refrain from this anomaly keeps playing: How can a nation with such a small talent pool gain the most medals in the Winter Olympics?

Whether there is a definitive answer to this might not be that important. Instead, a better takeaway for most nations would be to realize that bigger is not always better and that bigger is not necessarily in the spirit of the Olympics.

This is something that other mid-sized nations such as Taiwan can relate to as they ponder the value of participating in future Winter Olympics Games.

Bigger certainly brings its own headaches.

Larger nations do have to try to live up to the reputation of their size, as the Russian doping scandal suggests or even the abuse of US athletes at the summer games.

The larger a nation is, the larger the cracks for things to fall through.

Mid-sized Taiwan on the other hand does not have this problem.

Instead, Taiwan, which has few winter sports but might need to encourage more, should go back to the spirit of the Olympics and its charter, which states that the aim of the games is to "create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example, social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles."

In this spirit, such sports are to be placed at "the service of harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity."

These goals are all in line with the spirit of Taiwan's democracy and nationhood and by its continued participation, Taiwan acknowledges this and states it to the world.

This year, Taiwan only had four members participate in two sports at the Winter Olympics.

They did not win any medals, nonetheless it still can be said that they not only showed up but also that they participated with effort and showed that Taiwan was there.

Not as the Republic of China or under the ridiculous name of "Chinese Taipei," has Taiwan ever won a single medal in the Winter Games but it is not a reason to avoid the Winter Olympics or discourage participation in future games.

Instead, Taiwan's presence continues to show that it is in sync with the goals of the Olympic charter and that this is a much more valuable goal than winning medals.

Taiwan with its 23 million people can if it wants, choose to look to Norway's success as a source of additional inspiration. Or if Norway's success seems too far distant, then there is Lichtenstein, a country that some may even have trouble finding on a map.

It has a population of 38,000, yet it won one Winter Olympics medal.

Lichtenstein lived the spirit and also won with a pool of only 38,000, providing a reachable goal for mid-sized Taiwan.

And as for the name of Chinese Taipei, well, that is an additional challenge to be settled and won on the world's stage outside the Olympic Games.