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Iceland Has Never Won A Winter Olympics Medal. It's Not Alone

Iceland's Winter Olympics delegation has never produced a medal. The 2018 edition of the squad is seen here with their national flag at the Pyeongchang 2018 Olympic Winter Games opening ceremony.
Rob Schumacher/USA Today Sports/Reuters
Iceland's Winter Olympics delegation has never produced a medal. The 2018 edition of the squad is seen here with their national flag at the Pyeongchang 2018 Olympic Winter Games opening ceremony.

Let's acknowledge at the outset that despite its name, Iceland can be brilliantly, beautifully green. But the country lies far north of the equator, and a small part of it has an ice cap. One Icelander even made waves this week for posting a photo of herself hanging out laundry in chest-deep snow.

So it may come as a surprise to learn that while Iceland has sent 75 athletes to the Winter Olympics since 1948, it has no winter medals to show for it. Meanwhile, it has won four Summer Olympics medals.

The Olympics bring a chance to look at the world through the prism of sport. But when it comes to predicting athletic prowess, geography can be surprising.

Iceland is certainly not the only nation among the 92 competing at the Pyeongchang Olympics to have never won a winter medal. More than 50 countries that are competing at the Pyeongchang Games have never won a medal. In fact, only 44 countries have ever won a medal of any type in the Winter Olympics, compared with 147 that have won a medal at the Summer Olympics.

When it comes to winning gold, the numbers are even smaller: Just 36 countries have earned gold medals in the Winter Games versus 106 countries in the Summer Olympics.

None of this is to say that the Olympic Games are only about medals, or winning. They're also about the spirit of competition and camaraderie.

But a little hardware would also be welcome — especially for the dozens of countries that have never won a medal at all. And as the U.S. won its 100th Winter Olympics gold medal Wednesday — it went to snowboarder Shaun White — it's fitting to remember the rarity of these medals and the individuals who win them.

In fairness, six of the countries in Pyeongchang with no winter medals so far are competing for the first time. These are Ecuador (cross-country skiing), Eritrea (alpine skiing), Kosovo (alpine skiing), Malaysia (figure skating and alpine skiing), Nigeria (bobsleigh and skeleton) and Singapore (short track speedskating).

But others have been competing for decades. Argentina has a strong skiing and snowboarding scene and has sent 136 athletes to the cold-weather games over the past 90 years. Every time, they've returned empty-handed.

Other countries still awaiting their first Winter Olympics medal include:

Lithuania (first Winter Games: 1928)
Greece (1936)
Chile (1948)
Iran (1956)

You can see the full list at the Sports Reference site, run by an independent group that tracks Olympics data and statistics.

And there are other surprises once you dig into the data of Winter Olympics winners.

Denmark has earned only one winter medal (curling) — despite competing since 1948 and being located between two cold-weather sport titans, Germany and (across the North Sea) Norway. In the Summer Games, Denmark has done far better, winning 208 medals. With 17 athletes at the Pyeongchang Games, it will try to tilt that balance.

Belgium has 164 summer medals and five winter ones. The disparity is even greater for Hungary, which has won 505 medals in summer and just six in the winter.

Some of the disparity may be explained by the 28-year head start the Summer Games have on the Winter Olympics. The former started in 1896; the latter in 1924.

Also, the Winter Games are smaller: The Rio Games of 2016 had 306 medal events, for instance, while the Pyeongchang Games have 102.

But then we notice that China — which only began competing in the Winter Olympics in 1980 — already has more than twice the number of medals as Great Britain, at 53 versus 26, at the start of the Pyeongchang Games. That's with China sending 311 athletes over the years, to Britain's 642.

Again, the picture changes in the summer: In Rio 2016, China and Britain dueled for the No. 2 spot overall, with Team GB winning out.

Some countries are uniquely efficient. Leading up to Pyeongchang, Luxembourg had sent 12 athletes to the Winter Olympics; they brought home two silver medals. (This year, Luxembourg has sent just one athlete to South Korea, alpine skier Matthieu Osch).

As for Iceland, the country currently has five athletes in Pyeongchang, competing in men's and women's alpine and cross-country skiing. Their events continue through Friday.

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.