PARIS – Is there a link between economic power and Olympic medals? Is a form of multipolarity in sports emerging as political multipolarity sets in?
In 1992, immediately after the Cold War’s end, the United States and the former Soviet Union’s “Unified Team” won a quarter of the medals in Barcelona. Global bipolarity had not yet vanished. By the 2008 Beijing games, the world had changed significantly. The Soviet-American duopoly had given way to a Sino-American duopoly, which won a combined 20 per cent of the medals.
The London games confirmed this trend. The Sino-American duopoly has loomed large in the medal count (22 per cent of the total), but not outrageously so. Europe remains strong, while Asia and the Caribbean have made significant headway.
There are, in fact, four factors behind Olympic power: population size, sports traditions, sports policy, and level of development. Taken separately, none of these factors can explain a country’s Olympic record. Collectively, however, their explanatory power is relatively large.
For starters, population size is a source of power simply because large countries can take advantage of their greater human potential to shine in a broad array of disciplines. Countries with great demographic potential therefore inherently have great Olympic potential. Conversely, Australia appears to be the only country with less than 50 million inhabitants gaining more than 3 per cent of the medals at a Summer Olympic Games.
But, of course, a large population is not always a recipe for success. The most striking example is India, one of the least sports-oriented countries in the world, given its demographics: six medals for more than 1.2 billion inhabitants – the same number as Croatia, which has a population of just 4.3 million!
Clearly, Indian society has a complex relationship with sports. But the disparity between its demographic size and its Olympic success also shows that political multipolarity and sports multipolarity are not cast from the same mold.
India is probably the most spectacular counter-example, but it is not the only one. Countries like Brazil, Argentina, Turkey, and Mexico are dwarfed by countries like South Korea. Overall, it is fair to say that South America and the Middle East remain fringe players at the Olympics. The Caribbean, for example, far outranks Brazil.
National traditions are the second important factor in Olympic success. First, there are physical and natural realities. Ethiopians begin running in childhood as a means to reach, say, a distant school in the highlands. And the Caribbean does not necessarily offer many sports activities besides track and field, for which relatively few material resources are needed to create champions. This is one of the reasons why East Africa, the Caribbean, and to a lesser extent the Maghreb are prominently represented in Olympic running disciplines.
But traditions can also be created. The French are not culturally or physically predisposed to dominate sports such as judo, canoeing, and swimming, in which they have achieved distinction for more than 50 years. A national sports policy can be conducive to good results.
Such policies embody a country’s choice in developing one or several sports. They can grant a great deal of autonomy to various federations (as in the US and Great Britain); devote significant public resources to sports for political purposes (as in Russia and other dictatorships); or insulate publicly financed sports institutions from partisan politics in order to ensure continuity (as in Italy and France).
On the other hand, the absence of a real sports policy (or its unraveling) can become a decisive handicap. Indeed, how else to explain the poor performance of a country as well-endowed as Switzerland, or as highly populated as Nigeria? And what accounts for South Korea’s exceptional performance if not a coherent sports policy?
Finally, a country’s level of development, as we have seen, is far from being decisive to Olympic success, especially in the running disciplines. Runners can travel and train individually on the best tracks.
Obviously, however, development does play a significant role. While sports like running are relatively inexpensive, others – including gymnastics, swimming, and even more so team games and equestrian events – require significant resources. It is no coincidence that the Caribbean and Africa do not have a presence in these disciplines at the highest levels of competition.
Indeed, of the ten countries that received the most medals at the London games, all except China and Russia are OECD members. There are no less-developed countries, with the possible exception of Ukraine, in the top 15.
Thus, while economic power is not a prerequisite to Olympic power, multipolarity in sports remains positively correlated with it. Africa received only 3 per cent of all medals in London. But, if the continent can sustain its recent economic growth, that number will almost surely rise.
Zaki Laïdi is Professor of International Relations at Institut d’études politiques de Paris (Sciences-Po).