At the Summer Olympics, the IOC requires representatives from every continent in each sport. Even in team sports, where only between 8 and 16 teams can take part, there’s always a team from Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, Oceania and South America represented – although in some cases the two Americas are considered a single continent (this depends on the federation that governs the sport). At the Winter Olympics though, having all six continents compete in the same competition is quite rare.
This is not very surprising. After all, winter sports are originally – and still mostly – a thing for the rich and white, preferably from nations that have snow. This was adequately reflected by the list of participants in the inaugural Winter Olympics: North America and Europe were the only continents represented. South America (Argentina) and Asia (Japan) joined the Winter Olympics in 1928. Oceania became the fifth continent in 1936 (Australia) and South Africa was the first African nation in 1960.
The first time competitors from all six continents lined up at the start for the same Winter Olympic event was in 1968. In the men’s giant slalom, 101 skiers from 33 nations took part, including 4 Moroccans providing the “rare” African Winter Olympians. The slalom, held some days later, also saw all continents represented.
Since 1968, there have regularly been alpine skiing events with all six continents represented: in 1984, 1988, 1992, 1998, 2002, 2006 and 2010. With the exception of 1992, all of them were men’s events. In Albertville, the women also had three events with all continents, Oceania being the least represented continent (through Australia’s Zali Steggall).
The Albertville Games also marked the first time when a different sport than alpine skiing had the honor of six continents at the start. In two men’s cross country skiing events (the 10 km and the pursuit), this also happened. In Vancouver, the men’s 15 km was similarly universal.
In Sochi the list of sports with universal representation will not expand. Most likely, there will be some alpine skiing and cross country skiing events in which all six continents are represented (event start lists are not yet available, so we cannot be certain yet). It is not strange that this only happens for those two sports: they are the only winter sports for which any country can qualify a competitor (although they’re subject to some qualifying demands). It’s possible that in the future figure skating may join the list of competitors. South America is represented in that sport for the first time since 1908, and South Africa (previously already represented) did competed in the 2012 Worlds.