Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Trivializing the Olympics

Due to a combination of factors - having studied international affairs, having lots of free time, living at a house with a TV, semi-favorable time zone - I believe I have paid closer attention to this Summer Olympics than any since Atlanta in 1996. In winter the Olympics are a nice distraction to help you get through the season, and there's hockey. But four years ago I was in the first month of graduate school, intensively making friends and learning microeconomics. My dominant memory of the Beijing Olympics was George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin's awkward meeting after Russia went to war with Georgia.

This time I'm watching the Games every night on NBC, despite disapproving of the much-derided way the Peacock is tape-delaying and reshuffling and editing it (hardly alone there), as well as keeping track during the day. I love not only watching the athletics, but also constantly checking the results and their effect on the medal count. Of course I'm rooting for America in the U.S.-China duel for most overall medals (prioritized in the U.S.) and most golds (seemingly prioritized everywhere else), but even more than that I want as many countries as possible to win, I root for countries to win their first medals ever (as Guatemala, Cyprus, and Grenada have at these Olympics), I enjoy statistics likemedals per capita and learning trivia - like which is the smallest country, or to be specific IOC (International Olympic Committee), to win a medal (at the Summer Games it's Bermuda, current population 69,000, followed by Tonga and Grenada and the Virgin Islands; but Liechtenstein has nine Winter medals, six of them won by sibling skiers from 1976 to 1984). I was hugely disappointed when San Marino, my favorite of the world's microstates (having lived nearby in Bologna, I've actually been there twice), just missed winning its first medal as Alessandra Perilli finished a close fourth in a shooting event called the women's trap.

The geopolitics of the Games are unavoidable, and can be fun. Ian Johnson pours scorn on the "destructive public policy" behind the medal counts of contenders from China to Great Britain in an article which is a bit of a downer. Johnson points out that the British and the Germans are adapting the old strategy, which China currently masters, of picking events where you can win medals efficiently and investing heavily. He even criticizes the U.S. for spending so much private money on sports - though I would prefer the government to spend at least a bit more on athletics so the families of the Ryan Lochtes and Gabby Douglases of America don't face bankruptcy or foreclosures. Johnson's article is hardly in the spirit of the Games but it's worth a read. When you look at the list of 77 countries which have never won a medal, it's not only made up of tiny island countries and British, American and Dutch colonial possessions (although there are plenty of them), but also of populous countries like Bangladesh, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Myanmar, Nepal and Yemen, which are desperately poor. On a related note, Pakistan, Nigeria, the Philippines and Vietnam, the world's sixth, seventh, twelfth and fourteenth largest countries respectively, have not won a medal in these Olympics. Success in the Olympics seems to rest on being at least a middle-income country, or in the case of Ethiopia, Jamaica and Kenya, having really fast runners.

Another take-home is that communist athletic programs have a strong legacy. The U.S. managed to beat the Soviet Union in total medals only twice after 1952 - when the Games were held in Mexico in 1968, an when the Soviets didn't compete in 1984. East Germany still has the eighth highest overall medal total, and they did it in only five Summer and six Winter Games. Former Eastern Bloc countries have kept competitive, too. Romania's gymnastics program remains a worldbeater. Hungary has more than 10 medals, one of the few countries with more than one medal per million people. Belarus and Ukraine have had fine Olympics. (Only one former Soviet country has never won a medal, hermetic Turkmenistan - although a boxing referee from the country was expelled from the London Games in a match-fixing scandal). 

I don't love the Olympics as much as the World Cup or UEFA Euro Cup, but international competitions always have an appeal to someone who loves global politics and geographical trivia as much as me. London has been a thoroughly enjoyable Olympics, from Romneyshambles to Danny Boyle's opening ceremony to the sports and the statistics. So far 76 countries have won medals, here's hoping another 11 join them to break Beijing's record. Even better, let's get some more first-timers up on the podium. Go Montenegrin men's water polo team!