Thursday, August 2, 2012

Olympic Medal Counts Still Reflect National Power (or the Need for it)

1912 Native American Gold Medalist Jim Thorpe
Since the old days of the realities of the Olympic Games haven't always lived up to the ideals which founder Baron Pierre de Coubertin articulated "The important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle, the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well."  Native American Jim Thorpe (pictured at the right) was stripped of his gold medals after he was accused of playing professional sports.  At the time it may have been within the rules to take them away but they were reinstated 30 years after he died.

Owens in Berlin
In 1936 Hitler hoped to turn the Berlin games into a showcase for German supremacy.  Much has been made of Jesse Owens winning four gold medals thus embarrassing Hitler but Germany did win the most gold and overall medals after the United States had that distinction in the previous four games after WWI. Hitler really wanted revenge after the great war not just on the battlefield.

Similarly the mostly drugged communist East Germans did win the most overall medals with the Soviet Union taking the most gold in the 1980 winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York.  Americans prefer to remember the Miracle on Ice USA hockey team and Eric Heiden's five speed skating gold medals from that year.

The other postwar games were struggles between the USA and the Soviet Union with boycotts in the 1980 and 1984 summer games.   After the cold war the US seemed dominant in the summer medal count but the other countries were catching up (the US for the first time even managed to place first in the medal count in the 2010 winter games in Vancouver with Canada taking the most gold).  The 1968 Mexico City games have been immortalized by John Carlos and Tommie Smith's protest against racism though the US won the most overall and gold medals that year.

This years games and the 2008 games in Beijing indicate the growing power of China.  They were ahead of the US in the number of gold medals four years ago and are ahead of the US and now are about equal in the number of gold and overall medals this year so far.  The US prefers to remember Michael Phelps and maybe Usain Bolt from 2008.  What will we remember from this years games?  It's too early to tell so far. Missy Franklin may (or may not) fill that role with women playing a more prominent role.  Brazil hopes to join the ranks of more powerful nations by hosting the games in 2016.

We always look to the past for a golden age which never really existed.  This post cannot possibly cover all possible great Olympic moments.  The struggle we see on TV may be what we prefer to remember but there are many other struggles which are far less graceful which we rarely see.  In 1994, Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan let us see behind the curtain like Toto did in the Wizard of OZ.


Gabby Douglas has emerged as the up and coming star of the London games.  Here is a discussion of women's emerging role at the games.

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