The New Olympic Arms Race
by Ian Johnson
The New York Review of Books Blog
You can follow the Olympics two ways. First, there’s the right way: you pay attention to the athletes and root for great performances. You see them cry and hug each other in joy or look away in disgust at a bad performance. You empathize with them as human beings and debate issues like whether Michael Phelps is the greatest Olympian of all time or just the greatest swimmer. You wonder about doping but try to believe that the sports agencies have it more or less under control and that Dick Pound is just another Canadian curmudgeon.
Then there’s the way I watch the games: as a statistical survey of geopolitics and destructive public policy. Individuals matter, to a degree, but more as products of systems than as distinctive personalities. I admire Ye Shiwen’s performance but wonder more about why the country’s swimming coaches get paid almost as much as the central government spends on preserving the country’s dying folk culture. I think Phelps is a great physical specimen but wonder why Americans are getting fatter and fatter. And I look in bemusement at Great Britain’s sudden rise up the medals table—the telltale sign of a country with an inferiority complex that has decided to spend lots and lots of money on attention-getting elite sports: modern-day penis envy.
The Olympics used to be a lot easier to follow. For its first half-century, it was a much smaller event often interrupted by wars; only Hitler seemed to realize the games’ PR potential. Then came the Cold War and they turned into a battleground for rival ideologies. Countries like East Germany and the Soviet Union poured huge amounts of money into sports as a way to earn recognition. Especially East Germany, which craved respectability, had an almost pathological desire for Olympic success. In just five summer games, it racked up 409 medals.
Most people think the Eastern Bloc’s success was simply a question of massive doping—women with Adam’s apples and beards. But smart countries realized there were other explanations for the success. Warsaw Pact governments spent a huge amount of money on sports, true, but the key was that they ruthlessly targeted only likely medal winners. East Germany, for example, never bothered with ice hockey because it realized it would have to train at least two dozen elite athletes just to field a team and even then would have a tough time against established powerhouses. Instead, it focused on sports where one athlete could win multiple medals—speed skating and cycling for example. It also avoided sports that depended on having leagues (ice hockey, basketball, baseball and so on); better to support athletes who trained alone because they required less infrastructure. And of course athletes like Katarina Witt got enough money—and national prominence—to make it a profession. Amateurism was for losers.
Even before the Cold War ended, western countries were emulating these tactics. South Korea made a splash at the 1988 Seoul games by winning more gold medals than West Germany and landing in fourth place in the medal count. Australia went even further: After failing to win a gold medal at the 1976 Montreal games, it set up a centralized sports bureaucracy that set new athletic standards and channeled money to training programs and especially to winners. Despite its small population, it finished fourth in the medal counts in Sydney and Athens (although it slid to sixth in Beijing and seems to be doing even more poorly in London).
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