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Medal Race: When Sports and Politics Collide

Just like the USA-USSR space race during the cold war, the Olympic medal race seems to show the face of a geopolitical tension more and more. With the Tokyo Olympic Games just closed, we are left with great memories of outstanding achievements, and with a list of the countries that added more medals to their cabinet of glory. Indeed, being able to gain as much gold as possible – just like in the old days – seems to be a synonym of power and predominance.


The athletes competing in the name of their countries, however, are almost superhuman beings, capable of fantastic undertakings that leave us astonished and completely elated. To them, to their efforts, to their passion and dedication, one must by all means pay respect. Each athlete, no matter how strong or talented they are, is part of a whole system, a specific method of training and of learning sports, which is supported and sustained by the country they were born in or live in. It is only fair, then, to be curious to analyze what is behind a country’s many wins, especially when a small nation is competing against a much larger one.


When we look at some of the statistics for this year’s medal count, we find the USA and China at the very top of the list. Even though these are two huge countries, only comparable to Russia in fifth place, relevant discrepancies can already be noted: the USA, in fact, has a total area of almost four million square kilometres and a population of over 330 million; China, on the other hand, hosts a population greater than one billion in a total area of nine-and-a-half million square kilometres – the density of population being roughly the same. This data already denotes the North American superiority at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, with their 113 medals against China’s 88, albeit with only one medal difference in the total number of golds.

Scrolling down the list, we find an excellent Japan in third place, followed by an outstanding Great Britain in fourth. Australia, The Netherlands, France, Germany and Italy make up the rest of the list up to the tenth position. Taking aside the fantastic achievements of Australia, France and Germany, most of the amazement is inevitably directed towards those “small” – when compared to their rivals in the top ten list – islands and peninsulas that appear alongside them. Italy and Great Britain are fairly the same size and host a very similar amount of population. Japan is bigger and far more populated, and even though this is the country that hosted the Games, thus getting the advantage of the emotional element, one cannot help but wonder at its excellent results over countries such as Russia. Even more staggering, however, are the results of the Netherlands, a country with a total area of only about 42 thousand square kilometres and a population of almost 18 million.


So, what are the factors behind a country’s great achievements at the Olympic Games, the world’s greatest sporting competition?


The national economy is surely one of the main factors. Being good at sports signifies having the means to acquire both the knowledge and the experience that are necessary, thus investing in equipment and personnel. Of course, determination and passion play an essential part too: much like when in Rocky IV we see Ivan Drago train in state-of-the-art gyms, super-equipped, while his opponent Rocky Balboa is moving logs and running uphill in the snow-immersed Russian countryside: all to achieve the exact same result. Nonetheless, while films are often meant to gift us with the realization of a dream, reality shows us that technological advancement is often unbeatable, and quite necessary when one wants to compete for the top spot. Luckily though, reality and fiction sometimes merge into the same thing, thus making it possible for those who do not possess all the proper means to still excel.


Culture, usually following directly from wealth, is another determining factor. Importing sports from other countries is a sign of openness to the global variety, of the willingness to learn and improve, and to understand. The East and the West have always influenced each other culturally: one of the main ways to do this has always been through sports. North America has had, throughout its history, a massive cultural exchange with the Far East. We just need to think about the life of Bruce Lee, a Chinese man who travelled from his home country to the western coast of the United States, eventually accomplishing the American dream: becoming widely recognized on the big screen. In the process, he exported his own culture, teaching what he knew – and was best at – to university students, striving for a worldwide recognition of the discipline he had dedicated his whole life to: martial arts. Equally, sports such as baseball or American football, or basketball, have over time become a customary activity and indeed a lifestyle in many countries over Europe and the rest of the world. Not everyone is open to change though, nor have they the resources to implement and sustain a new sport: so, culture, in that sense, strictly depends upon a government’s ability to keep things in order and properly working.


Geographical location, of course, is of paramount importance. It is true that, as we have seen with the artificial ski slopes in the desert, powerful, rich countries such as the United Arab Emirates have the possibility to create their own environment at will. This, however, is one isolated case and a very rare one in the current state of things, and the natural conformation of any region – together with its climate – still decides what a certain population might be able to do, in terms of physical activities. Thus the variety of landscapes and conditions in such a small country as Italy, easily explains why the Italian peninsula was able to win as many golds as its huge neighbours France and Germany. The same might go for Japan and Great Britain. From skiing to kayaking and sailing, these countries offer all the preferred settings for almost any given sport.


Breaking down the reasons why certain countries do better than others at the major sporting event can be an excellent exercise, yet it only interests us as far as the geopolitical argument is concerned. For our main question here still remains: that the Olympic Games have always been, in some way, a battlefield – though a pacific one –for games of power and dominance.


Politics have always got in the way of the Olympic event, sometimes causing great controversies, sometimes even its cancellation. Arguably, one of the most prominent occasions for political supremacy came with the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Hitler entered the Berlin stadium in grand style, and supervised the ceremonies and the various challenges from a high position, looking down on the athletes like a Roman emperor. It is said that, when “Jesse” Owens, an exceptional Afro-American sportsman, won gold at the 100 metre race, the Führer refused to shake his hand – an honour usually paid to winning athletes. For the long jump, Owens was crowned again, beating his main rival, the German Ludwig “Luz” Long, and thus shuttering the Nazi’s dream for a public display of white supremacy. The most depraved act, though, came with the 4x100 metre relay. Glickman and Stoller, two Jewish athletes in the USA team, were replaced with two others – Owens being one of them. Hitler had ordered that no Jewish athlete should have competed, and to him even the word “negro” was preferable to the one that defined a race he despised. While Owens and his team won, the black athlete confessed how sorry he was for his teammates, who had worked extremely hard to get there.


The Berlin Olympics were surely and truly a sad moment, yet even at such a time the incredible achievements of athletes such as Owens went well beyond racial, religious and political prejudice, gifting every spectator – and surely Hitler himself – with breathtaking moments that showcased man’s incredible capabilities.

With what perhaps is not the best part of our nature, we may eagerly count medals and feel violently drawn towards our country’s success in the face of the foreigner, yet it is the athletes who never fail to teach us that failure and glory – and hard work – are universal human facets that belong to no place, to no flag, to no government. And, sometimes, just like when Luz Long accepted his silver with grace and took Owens, his crowned opponent, by the arm to walk with him around the stadium, “There are these moments in history when the actors understand that moment in history, and they just do the right thing.



Written by Edoardo Cippitelli


Edoardo Cippitelli is a columnist at DecipherGrey.


Photograph: Justing Green | Flickr.com