A ski resort in Colorado
The U.S. Women's Hockey Team celebrates their gold medal victory in Pyeongchang Grigory Dukor/Reuters

Despite the specialized nature of winter sports, Team USA in the 2018 Games hails from across the map.

Two hundred and forty-four American Olympians made their way from the United States to Pyeongchang, South Korea, for this year’s Olympics. Given that these are the Winter Games, you might expect a majority of America’s Olympians to hail from cold, snowy mountaintop places and winter sports locales. But that’s not exactly the case.

The U.S. delegation comes from a wide array of places, according to state-level data from the U.S. Census Bureau and metropolitan-area data gathered by Patrick Adler, my colleague at the Martin Prosperity Institute. Although the Olympians competing in some alpine sports are clustered around ski country, the athletes in many other sports—especially those that take place indoors, like figure skating and speed skating—tend to come from a wider variety of places, including big cities and metro areas. The U.S. Winter Olympic team is actually far less unequal, spatially, than most other aspects of American society.

America’s Olympians disproportionately hail from smaller states, according to the Census analysis. Roughly 70 percent of the athletes come from states with populations of less than 10 million. America’s nine largest states, which account for more than half of the country’s population and an overwhelming share of its economic output, produced less than 30 percent of Olympic team members.

In raw numbers, Colorado sent the most Olympians, with 31. On a per-capita basis, Vermont leads the way by a significant margin, with 24 athletes per million residents. Alaska is second, with 9.5 athletes per million.

To use the terminology of urban economics, it appears that certain states cluster particular kinds of sports and athletes. More than 60 percent of Massachusetts’ Olympians and 45 percent of Minnesota’s play ice hockey. Other states overwhelmingly sent athletes for one sport: for Vermont it was all types of skiing, Florida speed skating, and Alaska cross-country-skiing.

The geography of America’s winter Olympians is even more distributed when we look at it across metros. (To get at this, Adler identified the current home bases of U.S. Olympians from the team website and then matched those locations to U.S. metro definitions.)

Metro Number of athletes Share of U.S. total
Boston 12 4.92%
Minneapolis–St. Paul 12 4.92%
Chicago 11 4.51%
Summit Park, UT 8 3.28%
Los Angeles 7 2.87%
Detroit 6 2.46%
Duluth, MN 6 2.46%
New York 6 2.46%
Edwards, CO 6 2.46%
Steamboat Springs, CO 6 2.46%
Salt Lake City 6 2.46%
Anchorage 5 2.05%
Philadelphia 5 2.05%
Washington 5 2.05%
Glenwood Springs, CO 5 2.05%
Ann Arbor, MI 4 1.64%
New Haven, CT 4 1.64%
Ogden, UT 4 1.64%

The chart above shows the 18 metros that sent four or more Olympians to the 2018 Winter Games. Big, cold, northern metros like Boston, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Chicago top the list. Eight athletes hail from tiny Summit Park, Utah, close to the U.S. training center at Utah Olympic Park and the site of the Salt Lake City Winter Games in 2002. Salt Lake City itself also sent six athletes.

Overall, the top 10 places account for about a third of the U.S. delegation, a significant percentage. However, America’s 2018 winter delegation is not as geographically concentrated as its 2012 summer team, when just the top five metros accounted for a higher proportion of the delegation.

The picture changes when we control for population and look at the geography of U.S. Olympic team members on a per-capita basis. The chart below lists the top 10 places with at least two athletes.

Metro Number of athletes Per 100k people
Winthrop, WA 2 507.61
Craftsbury, VT 3 264.08
Crested Butte , CO 2 134.50
Lake Placid, NY 3 119.00
Telluride, CO 2 86.02
Steamboat Springs, CO 6 30.94
Summit Park, UT 8 27.81
Mammoth Lakes, CA 2 24.29
Edwards, CO 6 14.74
Breckenridge, CO 3 12.30

More stereotypical winter-sports locations now top the list. Small mountain towns out west and in New England, like tiny Winthrop, Washington (with 394 people) and Craftsbury, Vermont (home to 1,136), make up the entirety of the top 10.

The geography of Winter Olympians also exhibits clustering and specialization based on the type of hometown—metro, small town, or rural area. Less than half (46 percent) of athletes in outdoor sports come from metropolitan areas. Four out of five biathlon competitors are from smaller towns. Less than half of the competitors in cross-country skiing, ski jumping, alpine skiing, and biathlon come from larger metros.

But 92 percent of athletes in indoor winter sports come from major metros. This likely reflects the fact that rinks, training centers, and coaches in these sports predominate in big cities. Four indoor sports—curling, figure skating, and long- and short-track speed skating—are represented exclusively by athletes from metropolitan areas. Snowboarding also skews more urban than you might expect, with nearly 60 percent of U.S. competitors hailing from major metros, and only 12 percent from rural areas.

America’s current crop of Winter Olympians is far less urban or metro-oriented than the U.S. as a whole. Less than two-thirds (64 percent) of the current U.S. team hails from major metro areas, compared to slightly more than 80 percent of the nation as a whole. Another 18 percent hails from smaller micropolitan areas, and 18 percent from rural areas.

America is not only a large, populous country, but a geographically varied one. At the Olympic team’s disposal are cold places, warm places, and everywhere from mountain ranges to big cities with abundant indoor ice rinks and training facilities. Given America’s size and geographic diversity, its Winter Olympic team might be expected to perform better than it has, especially its 20-something-place ranking on a per-capita basis.

On the upside, however, the geographic diversity of the team suggests that not everything in contemporary life has to fall victim to spatial inequality.

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