With the Olympics wrapping up many countries will be looking at the final ranking and assessing how well they did. Already the spin wars are brewing. A few American newspapers are trying to talk up a favourable story for the United States by emphasizing certain aspects of America’s medal tally: more gender parity in its medals, lots of team medals which only count for one even though lots of athletes get medals.
Others – including some other American newspapers and the official Olympics Medal Standings – recognize the dramatic rise of China and prioritize rank according to Gold Medals won.
But for all the talk of the rise of China and its challenge to the United States, one simple fact remains, much of this jostling for position is made possible because the USSR has been wiped off the map.
Indeed what is amazing – and has gone relatively ignored – is how well the USSR would have done at the Beijing games were it still intact.
Admittedly it would still have trailed China in Gold Medals won – 44 (USSR) to 51 (China) – but it would still have bested the United States 36. However, it is over in total medals won where the USSR would have crushed everyone. Combined, the countries of the former Soviet Union won an astounding 175 medals in Beijing, leaving both America (110) and China (100) far in its (theoretical) wake. Indeed even using the New York Times scoring system (gold = 4 points, silver=2 points and bronze=1 point) the mighty USSR athletic machine would again crush the competition 353 points to China’s 274 and America’s 256.
What makes this feat all the more impressive is that their combined population has not grown (indeed it is in decline in most places), nor, I imagine, has funding for sports likely improved all the much. If anything, things are likely more difficult vis-a-vis funding – particularly in relation to the sums invested by the Americans and the Chinese. A sporting generation has passed since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 – indeed many of those competing probably can’t even remember those calamitous events 17(!) years ago. What keeps the USSR a formidable Olympic contender? Is it the social capital of trainers, coaches and professionals, is the the legacy of physical infrastructure or a political culture that rewarded athletic excellence? It would be interesting to know – somehow a centrally planned approach for creating Olympic success has survived its apparent balkanization and decent into decentralization exceedingly well.
The table below, and so much of the work for this post, was done by Richard Dice who tabulated all the data and kindly forwarded it to me. Thank you Richard.
|Soviet Republics Rankings||Gold||Silver||Bronze||Total|
|Hypothetical Ranking by Medals||Gold||Silver||Bronze||Total|
|Hypothetical Rankings by Golds|
|Hypothetica NYT Rankings|