All talk so far—at least on this side of the Atlantic—has been of the stellar rise of the United Kingdom, or Team GB, to the third place in the medals table. Many Americans, counting by total number of medals, might argue that the UK is in fact fourth. But the IOC counts by number of gold medals, and this is the measure that I have preferred in this article.
With only a few hours and a few medals to go before the closing ceremony, team GB has taken 28 gold medals, considerably more than the 19 it took at Beijing four years ago. In fact, this is our greatest medal haul since the first London Olympics in 1908. To put things into perspective, the USA with six times our population pulled in ‘just’ 44 gold medals, and China with 20 times our population pulled in just 38.
This is not in any way to diminish the achievements of the USA and China, which, until recently, had been fighting neck and neck for pole position. Of course, purists will argue that this is not what the Olympics are about: unlike, say, the World Cup, it is not a national team or a country that ‘wins’ at the Olympics, but only the individual athletes. Nevertheless, it remains that many countries see the medal count as indicative of their status in the world. And based on precedent, they are right to do so.
Excluding London 2012, there have been 26 modern Olympic Games, starting with Athens in1896 and ending with Beijing in 2008. There would have been 29 if three (1916, 1940, and 1944) had not been cancelled for cause of war. In 1896, 241 athletes came to represent 14 countries; by 2008, 10,500 athletes represented 204 countries. But the modern Olympic Games have been almost entirely dominated by the 20th century’s two great superpowers: out of 26, the USA topped the medals table 16 times and the USSR seven times. The USSR only came top in and after 1956, that is, during the cold war period when it’s rivalry (not to say enemity) with the USA was at its most virulent.
In other words, there have only been three Games that have not been ‘won’ by the USA or the USSR: London 1908, Berlin 1936, and Beijing 2008. In all three cases, the winner was the host country, Great Britain in 1908, Germany in 1936, and China in 2008—each at a time when it aspired to be top dog in the world (and, no doubt, invested in sports accordingly).
Until the very last few days of London 2012, it seemed that China could, once again, come first (but this time outside home turf), which, in many people’s eyes, would have marked or confirmed a seismic shift in the world order. Of course, the USSR no longer exists. It’s heir, Russia, is nonetheless fourth in the medals table with 21 gold medals, and countries which used to be part of the USSR, in particular Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and Belarus, have done rather well, with 14 gold medals between the three. A culture and legacy of athleticism is hard to break. Another surprise, at least to me, is Korea with 13 gold medals, eclipsing both Germany with 11 and France with only 10—almost three times fewer than its best friend and arch nemesis, the United Kingdom.
All this muscle flexing is not only beautiful to watch, but also considerably healthier and cheaper than a nuclear arms race or out-and-out war. Britain invested only £125 million in its athletes, which means that each medal cost the British tax payer about three pence.
As a psychaitrist, I am bound to say that the Olympic Games are a prime example of the sublimation of the war instinct.
But I think the real lesson here is this: that success is the result of how you see yourself.