Where are the good Scandinavian figure skaters?

by on February 18, 2010 at 1:42 pm in Sports | Permalink

John-Charles Bradbury asks:

Scandinavian countries tend to be quite good at most winter sports, which is no surprise given their climate; however, no Scandinavian athlete has won a figure skating medal since 1936.

There's some data at the link.  The natural microeconomic hypothesis is to cite David Friedman's work on warm houses in cold climates, and vice versa.  Sweden has ice lots of the year, so it's (maybe) less valuable to build ice arenas.  That would mean you can skate for only part of the year.  Warmer nations build more arenas — otherwise their citizens can't skate at all — but then their skaters have year-round access.  Perhaps the 1936 shift point comes because, if you go back far enough, no country is building ice arenas.

Since it's harder to build ski facilities in a warm climate, this effect is concentrated on skating.

I don't have any evidence for this mechanism, it is simply the economic argument which comes to mind.  Do you have better ideas or relevant evidence on this question?  From which states do the U.S. gold medal skaters come from?  How ice-bound are those states?  How involved were the fathers in the education and training of the female gold medalists?

Addendum: Scott Beaulier chimes in and John-Charles replies.

1 Edward Gaffney February 18, 2010 at 1:56 pm

The Hansonian take is that competitive skating is an important cultural symbol and the size of the North American jump is a signal. To understand Swedish skating, think ABBA on ice. Also Americans believe in the rule of law.

2 anon February 18, 2010 at 2:10 pm

Maybe the Scandinavians prefer to direct their efforts more towards sports which are not so dependent on the subjective whims of judges.

3 Andrew Edwards February 18, 2010 at 2:18 pm

Your theory would need to be extended in some way to cover the fact that Russia, Canada, and Sweden are all unusually good at hockey

4 MS February 18, 2010 at 2:29 pm

@Rahul: Sweden is very gender neutral. Or put another way, it has a low masculinity index.

5 Ken Arneson February 18, 2010 at 2:40 pm

Swedes tend to be interested only in the sports that they are good at. Swedes didn’t care much about tennis until Bjorn Borg came along, and then next thing you know there are Swedish tennis players all over the top 10. They didn’t care about table tennis until J-O Waldner became world champion, and then they’re suddenly broadcasting table tennis *on the radio*.

So I think the simple answer to the question is network effects: there aren’t any good Scandinavian figure skaters because there aren’t any good Scandinavian figure skaters. But if one came along, you’d probably have five within a generation.

6 Tom West February 18, 2010 at 2:49 pm

I think Ken’s point applies to just about every country. A national success suddenly spawns dozens of other young people in their steps who suddenly clue into the fact the sport exists.

I think it works the other way as well, so countries will basically “fall out of love” with a sport if there’s been a dry spell in high-profile successes.

7 charlie February 18, 2010 at 3:15 pm

Child labor laws. Figure skating, like gymnastics, is about enslaving the girl-child.

8 jimbino February 18, 2010 at 3:38 pm

The Scandinavians and Finns are too busy taking the ferry to Estonia to buy beer. There are only about 20 million Scandinavians, so it’s no surprise to see them take a vanishingly small fraction of medals.

9 Trevindor February 18, 2010 at 3:53 pm

“Sweden has ice lots of the year, so it’s (maybe) less valuable to build ice arenas. That would mean you can skate for only part of the year.”

As others have mentioned, this theory is contradicted by the success of Swedish hockey players. Per capita, the Swedes, Finns and Czechs are head and shoulders over everyone else in production of world-class hockey players. But where are the Norwegians?

What about the physique of Nordic women? Top tier figure skaters have trended toward gymnast body types over recent years.

10 riko February 18, 2010 at 4:12 pm

Having attended an ice hockey game in Sweden in August, I can attest to at least one indoor ice facility there that can operate year round. I think I can safely assume there are others. Maybe they just have better things to do.

11 bullfighter February 18, 2010 at 4:27 pm

What an incredible bunch of stereotypes and completely made-up alternative history in these comments! The award for the most egregious bullshit goes to Ken Arneson: “Swedes didn’t care much about tennis until Bjorn Borg came along, and then next thing you know there are Swedish tennis players all over the top 10. They didn’t care about table tennis until J-O Waldner became world champion, and then they’re suddenly broadcasting table tennis *on the radio*.”

Stellan Bengtsson was world champion when Waldner was 6 years old. Bengtsson, Appelgren (3 times) and Persson were European champions before Waldner. Sweden won the men’s team European title 6 times in a row between 1964 and 1974, which means that Waldner was in 5th grade by the time he first experienced his country NOT being the European champion. Between 1960 and 1998, there was only one European Championship (1978) in which Sweden failed to win at least one gold. (By contrast, Sweden has won a total of 3 golds in 2 of the 6 European Championships played since then.)

As for tennis, Borg was at least the first world-class player from Sweden, but Wilander was almost 12 by the time Borg won the first major, and 6 years later he was a French Open winner himself. Edberg is just a couple of years younger. It is preposterous to conclude that those two players suddenly emerged due to Borg’s popularity. Rather, a far more likely explanation is that Sweden, much like Czechoslovakia, built a lot of public tennis courts in the 1960s and thus transformed tennis from a sport for elites to one for the masses.

As for the cold climate hypothesis in the original post, it crumbles as soon as you realize that Russia and Canada are cold countries with a lot of figure skating success. Besides, Norway and Denmark don’t have that much natural safe-for-skating ice in winter; only Sweden does among the Scandinavian countries. And, of course, the most famous Scandinavian figure skater in history was Norwegian.

In addition, as others have pointed out, Sweden has plenty of ice rinks and tons of hockey medals.

12 Sanjay February 18, 2010 at 4:36 pm

The most popular sport in Sweden is however Soccer, like every where else in Europe except Finland.

13 Steve Sailer February 18, 2010 at 4:59 pm

Eastern European excellence in figure skating has to do with the legacy of the Communist scrabbling for every kind of Olympic medal and the legacy of ballet, which the Russians took the lead in during the 19th Century. The Communists invested in 19th Century aristocratic art forms to keep out 20th Century popular ones.

14 Alan Gunn February 18, 2010 at 5:15 pm

Sweden is a very small country; how many sports can a country that small excel at? Do people ask why New York City (almost as large as Sweden) doesn’t produce top Olympic athletes in all winter sports year after year?

15 k February 18, 2010 at 6:22 pm

Figure skating like gymnastic is an example of path dependance, only previous winner are able too win. They are rigged of favor of some countries. The USA broke out thank to b Bela Karoly and home field advantage

16 Yancey Ward February 18, 2010 at 8:04 pm

Figure skating is a sport?

17 J. Bang February 18, 2010 at 10:24 pm

Maybe this is just comparative advantage – they *could* utilize their winter climate to become the best figure skaters in the world, but their climate and topography might make them at an even greater competitive advantage in sports like x-country skiing, alpine skiing, hockey, and so on. You know, kinda like Babe Ruth becoming the best home run hitter ever instead of being a really great pitcher.

18 r4 gold karte February 19, 2010 at 6:48 am

Though the Scandinavian nations generally fare well in the Winter Olympics, there’s a gaping hole in their success when it comes to figure skating.The rational response for Scandinavian countries was to focus more of their energies on the sports they have a comparative advantage: skiing, ski jumping, etc.

19 Kari Mitchell February 19, 2010 at 10:55 am

The 1936 gold medal referred to was won by Norwegian Sonja Henie – her third olympic championship. So, in the major part of this post and comments, why is it that Scandinavia = Sweden, more or less? By the way, it was Norwegian Axel Paulsen who gave name to the Axel Jump.

And why on earth would there be less natural ice in Norway than in Sweden? It extends much further north than its Sacndinavian neighbour and reaches higher altitudes.

I believe that after WWII there has been less of a figure skating milieu in most of Scandinavia. Standards became higher – to be good, you had to live in an environment of outstanding performers and coaches that you just couldn’t find in Scandinavian countries. Going abroad to obtain perfect conditions cannot be combined with school.

20 J February 19, 2010 at 11:04 am

The idea that there aren’t enough artificial ice rinks in the Nordic countries is silly. At least in Sweden and Finland there are more of them per capita than perhaps anywhere else in the world. They are, however, mostly used for ice hockey. I wonder why the Norwegians suck at ice hockey.

21 Sune February 20, 2010 at 7:25 am

Denmark is a non-factor in winter sports because we rarely have no mountains and little snow and ice.
I’ve only had the opportunity to play ice hockey twice in my life, once was a rare cold winter on a lake and second was in an arena, which was farely expensive and didn’t get much time on the ice before the next group took over.
Danes face a high cost of skiing (long travel) or skating.

Norway is mountain country with most of the population living at the coasts, they don’t have as much people living near skateable ice as Sweden or Finland.

Btw Denmark is hardly “not much of a sports nation” http://www.nationmaster.com/graph/spo_sum_oly_med_all_tim_percap-medals-all-time-per-capita

Ten years ago no Danes knew what curling was, then a woman team won a medal, and now it’s getting the most airtime and half of this years woman team is girls aged 21,22 who likely got inspired to play curling by that medalwinning team 10 years ago.

22 Jakob February 21, 2010 at 1:07 pm

“There are only about 20 million Scandinavians, so it’s no surprise to see them take a vanishingly small fraction of medals.”

Excluding Denmark (which is completely flat and not particularly cold, so not really a ski-friendly place), the Scandinavian countries do well even if you look at total, instead of per-capita, medal counts. Norway is currently top in the all-time Winter Olympic medals count (294, including 103 gold medals), while Sweden is 6th and Finland 8th. In Vancouver, Norway is second overall with 11 medals overall, Sweden 7th and Finland 23rd.

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