Five for Friday: Olympic Geography

In case you weren’t aware, the Summer Olympic Games will officially open tonight in London, England. Athletes from throughout the world have traveled to Great Britain for a fortnight, in hopes of returning home with the glory of an Olympic medal. During these special two weeks, basketball celebrities will share the same stage as relatively unknown fencing and handball stars, all basking in equal glory.
But where do all these players come from? Where do the Olympics take place? Are all of these sports are competed in London, in just two weeks? All of these answers, and more, await in our weekly Five for Friday series.
1. Host Cities of the Olympics (1896-2018)
Since the first modern-day Olympics took place in Athens in 1896, the Olympics have been held on four of the world’s seven continents. Although Brazil is slated to host the games in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, the Olympics have yet to take place in the southern hemisphere, save Australia (where they have been held twice).
London will soon hold the distinction of having hosted the Olympics three times, a unique feat in the Games’ reincarnation. The only other cities to have hosted multiple times are Los Angeles, Lake Placid, Paris, and Athens. 
Of similar interest, few countries have ever host both summer and winter Olympic Games.  Canada, the United States, France, Japan, Italy, and Germany are the only countries to have had that honor, with South Korea and Russia set to join them within the decade.
Map courtesy of Maps of World.

2. London 2012 – Football Host Cities and Stadiums
These are the London Olympics, right? Well, not so fast… In fact, many of the events will be held outside of the city, including the prestigious Olympic football tournament. In all, six cities throughout Great Britain will host football matches, with some being played in front of as few as 32,000 fans in Coventry, and as many as 90,000 in London’s Wembley Stadium.
Besides football, various other sporting competitions will be held outside of London during the Games. Mountain bike and road cycling races will both be held outside of the capital city, in Essex County and Surrey, respectively. Seeing as the Thames is not exactly a white water river, the canoe slalom will be held 30 kilometers outside of London, at Lee Valley White Water Centre. Of all athletes, sailors will be the furthest alienated from their fellow countrymen, being as they will compete in Weymouth, on the south coast of the United Kingdom.
Map courtesy of
3. Cartogram of Olympic Medals
We’ve got to hand it to them, The New York Times produces some pretty cool maps. In these two cartograms, scroll through the history of medal wins at the games, depicted in proportional circles. 
This first map gives a geographic view of medal wins at Summer Olympic Games, dating back to the first games in 1896. Of the 26 incarnations of the event, the United States has led the medal count in just over half, with 14, having captured the last four.
Map courtesy of The New York Times.

The medal leader of the Winter Olympic Games, on the other hand, has not always been so decisive.  Various countries, including Norway, the United States, and Germany, have led the medal count throughout the years. Although generally a competition among North American and European nations, the Winter Olympics have recently become more of a global competition, with Asian nations Japan, South Korea, and China becoming strongholds in various sports. It was not until 1992 that any country in the Southern Hemisphere took home a medal in the winter games, with New Zealand capturing silver in the women’s slalom.
Map courtesy of The New York Times.
4. London 2012 – Participating Countries
As displayed in the map below, the Olympics truly are global games. Only two countries are not sending any athletes to London, those being Kosovo and the Vatican. In two interesting cases, the newly-formed South Sudan and the recently dissolved Netherlands Antilles will each have athletes representing them at the games, but competing under the Olympic flag.
Depending on your point of view, there may be 193, 195, or even 196 countries in the world. So how are 205 “countries” competing in the London Olympic Games? The International Olympic Committee has permitted eleven territories and unrecognized states to send athletes to London, including Palestine and Taiwan (competing as Chinese Taipei).
Summer Olympics Team Members
Map courtesy of Foreston, Wikimedia Commons
5. U.S. Olympic Athletes by County
Last, but certainly not least, is a bivariate choropleth map (one that displays two different variables) of Olympic interest. Here, we see the per capita number of Olympic athletes, by US county. Not only are the athletes displayed, but also in which games they competed (summer or winter). Therefore, a dark blue county would have a high number of Winter Olympics athletes per capita, whereas a beige county would have a relatively low amount of summer Olympic athletes per capita. Those in white, of course, do not have Olympic athletes representing them.
As we can discern from this map, all fifty states are well represented by Olympians, with various western states displaying  varying shades of purple, exemplifying their prowess in both summer and winter sports.
Map courtesy of Haley’s Maps.
— Justin Fisch for National Geographic Education

Editor’s Note: Credit is due to the members of the Intern Cave (Melanie Dorsett, Cassie Lawson, Cayla Buttram, and Ryan Schleeter) for helping me locate and describe the most interesting Olympic maps. A special thank you to National Geographic Education Facebook fan Stefan Caiafa for correcting a crucial mistake in the article. Six countries have hosted both the summer and winter games, not five, as previously reported.

5 thoughts on “Five for Friday: Olympic Geography

Leave a Reply