Why Count Olympic Medals?

I'll admit, I found myself checking the Olympic medal count daily, and felt little stirrings of patriotism as the Americans kicked off the first Gold win in air rifle, and then really started haulin' 'em in during swimming, gymnastics, and track & field. 

The news media rather obsesses over it, updating us constantly throughout the games. Who's in the lead? Will China get 2nd or fall behind Great Britain?

But I had a moment where I asked myself why I cared at all that the United States had the most medaling athletes. It seemed a bit out of alignment with what I had imagined the Olympic spirit to be: a time for the whole world to come together and celebrate the best athletes on earth and spend a little bit of time getting along. What's the official line?

The IOC's mission is to "promote Olympipanism throughout the world." What's Olympianism, you ask? The IOC elaborates:

OLYMPISM IS A PHILOSOPHY OF LIFE, EXALTING AND COMBINING IN A BALANCED WHOLE THE QUALITIES OF BODY, WILL AND MIND. BLENDING SPORT WITH CULTURE AND EDUCATION, OLYMPISM SEEKS TO CREATE A WAY OF LIFE BASED ON THE JOY FOUND IN EFFORT, THE EDUCATIONAL VALUE OF GOOD EXAMPLE AND RESPECT FOR UNIVERSAL FUNDAMENTAL ETHICAL PRINCIPLES.

The goal of the Olympic Movement is to contribute to building a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport practiced without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.

Sucking nationalism into it doesn't seem to make sense. Yet many of us get into a nationalist fervor of various levels, as if our country pulling in more medals matters to us individually or to the country.

Of course, in totalitarian states go totally overboard. The 1976 East German team gives you a pretty good visual of its state-sponsored steroid program:

But this isn't a thing of the past. Russia almost got kicked out of the Olympics for systemic state-sponsored doping. China scoops up kids at young ages and puts them through harsh, life-long Olympic factories to turn them into winners. If you want to see these unhappy kids getting abused, you can do so here

These programs aren't just individual athletes cheating in the hopes of glory: they're states cheating and abusing children in the hopes of some glory. But who cares? What changes?

What About the Ancient World?

Did our prestigious Hellenistic ancestors care about which city-state you were from when the Olympic Games ran in antiquity?

Not at first, but most city-states didn't compete. When the Olympics became Hellas-wide, politics jumped in, and city-states won glory (really important to the ancient Greeks) for their athletes winning. In fact, the city-state competition got so hot that bribes and exile got thrown into the mix. From Pausinias:

"Sotades at the ninety-ninth Festival was victorious in the long race and proclaimed a Cretan, as in fact he was. But at the next Festival he made himself an Ephesian, being bribed to do so by the Ephesian people. For this act he was banished by the Cretans."[citation]

What about the Restart in 1896?

These games weren't meant to fetishize the Olympian's home nation, and the IOC (and most media outlets) didn't keep track. 10 years later, caring about the home nation became official.

So twice, we see nationalism creeping in where it wasn't originally meant to. In the modern-day, the obsession over the medal count leads to state-sponsored training factories for kids, steroid use, and other cheating in order to pump up a country's medal count.

Don't even get me started on spending billions (plus bribes?) to have the honor of hosting.

So is medal-counting at the national level just a sad way that nationalism affects everything, or something I'm missing? Looking forward to your thoughts. 

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Erik Fogg

We do politics, but we don't do the thinking for you.