With the Sochi games nearing the homestretch, the focus has turned to that most irresistible of Olympic events: watching the medal count. Many publications keep a running tally, and some even investigate why big countries like the United States and Russia haven’t won more, or argue that, adjusted for population and GDP, smaller nations like Norway and Belarus are really the medal leaders. The order of the medal table may be up for debate—Drudge has made it clear he judges by gold alone—but the concept of the medal table itself has gone conspicuously unquestioned. That’s unfortunate, because our obsession with the medal count has become a symbol of everything that is wrong with the Olympics today.
As economists Kevin Grier and Tyler Cowen noted during the London Games, medals typically go to countries that are rich, populous, and invest significant sums in their Olympic training program (though focusing on specific sports—like the Netherlands do in speed skating—can give smaller nations a comparative advantage). For the U.S., the all-time leader in both Olympic golds and total medals, the games are a biennial ego boost at a time when America consistently lags behind the rest of the developed world in several more important metrics. We may not be first in income equality, health care, or math, reading and science scores, but we can still bring home the gold.
Such naked nationalism is all the more glaring given why the Olympics were conceived in the first place. Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the French founder of the modern games, didn’t just want to promote physical education worldwide. Based on a romanticized reading of the truces and camaraderie surrounding the ancient Greek Olympic games, he was convinced that different nations competing alongside each other would lead inexorably to world peace and mutual understanding. “The important thing at the Olympic Games is not to win, but to take part,” said de Coubertin, “for the essential thing in life is not to conquer, but to struggle well.”
The history of the Olympics has been one long story of our inability to live up to that ideal. The most famous games are remembered not for athletic feats but for political symbolism: the 1936 Nazi Games in Berlin, the 1972 Munich Massacre, the "black power" salute in Mexico in 1968, and the consecutive boycotts of Moscow in 1980 and Los Angeles in 1984. Founded in the shadow of the Franco-Prussian war (the Germans almost boycotted the inaugural games in 1896), the Olympics have endured two world wars and served as one of the most prominent battlefields of the Cold War. It didn't trigger any conflicts, but it certainly hasn’t stopped them.
Perhaps that’s because the games inevitably breed suspicion, envy, and even anger. In a Gallup poll taken just as the Sochi games began, Americans’s favorability rating of Russia fell to its lowest level in 15 years. Surely, Russia's hospitality toward Edward Snowden and support for the Syrian regime played into that—but just as surely, so did our Olympic competitiveness with the host nation. Then came the U.S.-Russia hockey game on Saturday, in which a Russian go-ahead goal with five minutes remaining was disallowed by the American referee. The U.S. went on to win in a shootout, and prominent Russians reacted with vitriol, even accusing NBC of buying a favorable ruling. It’s safe to say U.S.-Russia relations won’t be thawing anytime soon.
What's more, the medal count explicitly violates the IOC’s own rules. The Olympic charter explicitly states that “The IOC and the [Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games] shall not draw up any global ranking per country, instead honoring individual medal winners." After all, as the Charter makes clear, “the Olympic Games are competitions between athletes in individual or team events and not between countries.” Despite this, the official Sochi 2014 website prominently features a medal count, as did the websites for London, Vancouver, Beijing, and Turin. (By the way, is there anything sadder than an eight-year-old Olympic homepage?)
It would be easier to dismiss medal-counting as mere competitive fun if countries didn’t treat it like a real measurement of national worth—and spend accordingly. After it failed to win gold at its home Olympics in Montreal '76 and Calgary '88, Canada invested $110 million in its “Own the Podium” program in the lead-up to the 2010 Vancouver games. Ahead of London 2012, Great Britain spent 264 million pounds preparing its athletes. Russia hasn't revealed how much it spent on training athletes before Sochi, but given the games’ $51 billion pricetag, it’s safe to assume they spared no expense. In each case, Olympic investment has resulted in noticeably increased medal totals, but it’s tempting to think about what else could have been done with that money.
Performing well on a global stage like the Olympics can be a potent symbol, especially for the host country, but it is still only a symbol—and a fleeting one at that. (Do you even remember who "won" the games in Turin?) Ultimately, our outsize investment in the games—both emotionally and financially—says more about America's priorities than it does about our athletic abilities or national strength. There's a different kind of gold medal, for instance, that an American hasn’t won since 1993: The Nobel Prize for Literature. But I haven't heard anyone suggest we fund a multi-million-dollar “Own the Pen” initiative.