The Olympics as a predictor of geopolitical power: Part II Observations from the 2016 Olympics

Interestingly, there is no official Olympic medal table and the methodology of how it has been unofficially calculated has varied over recent years. For the 2016 Olympics it is based simply on the number of gold medals, but in future perhaps it should have some kind of weighted average, 3 for gold, 2 for silver and 1 for bronze? That being said the 2016 Olympic table shows some fascinating linkages between sport and geopolitical power.

America won 46 gold , 37 silver and 38 bronze medals and thus led the table as befits the world’s greatest economic and military power. However, a closer look reveals that this gold medal haul predominantly comes from two sports: 16 in swimming, 13 in athletics; with only 4 from gymnastics, 2 from wrestling and 2 from their home game, basketball. This 2016 gold haul is considerably narrower than in 2012 when boxing, water polo soccer, tennis, diving and wrestling were all gold winners in addition to swimming and athletics. In effect, this 2016 Olympic win comes from excellence, not accoss the sporting board, but from only two specific sports. Interestingly, this is but a reflection of the declining American power and under the two Obama’s presidencies the global footprint of American influence has been reduced from a broad geopolitical impression to a much narrower presence. The danger for any nation in such precarious position is that when it loses preeminence in the remaining narrow areas of dominance, the system collapses surprisingly rapidly. This is the same with the US Olympic team which has displayed considerable future vulnerabilities if they are challenged in the swimming and athletics areas in 2020.

China has since 1998 manifested its expansive objectives in the increasing dominance of its Olympic team which cumulated with a home win in the 2008 Olympic Games. They then followed that with a 2nd place in London and must feel surprised and even shocked at coming 3rd behind Great Britain in Rio with only 26 gold, 18 silver and 26 bronze medals. So what could have happened to the Chinese team, when China itself under President Xi is more expansive in its geopolitical goals than it has ever been? Initially, China’s expansion was based on a moral and economic expansion to demonstrate superiority and thus, the Olympic team would have been given significant priority. China’s area of superiority is not as narrow as the USA with a broad spread from 7 gold in diving, 5 in weightlifting, 4 in table tennis and badminton, 2 in athletics and a gold each in shooting, swimming, volleyball and track cycling. Notably, all their coaches are domestic Chinese in origin and without an infusion of international coaches its seem unlikely that China will grow its expertise into new fields of excellence. But most worrying of all is that China has moved from a phase of covert expansion to one of overt military and economic expansion, and with such an emphasis perhaps if dropped the ball and lost focus on its Olympic team. No doubt that they will renew their effort to ascend to the top of the medals table in 2020.

Russia’s 4th place with 17 gold, 10 silver and 15 bronze embodies many messages. Firstly, under his ambitious vision for Russia, Putin seeks to rebuild the glory days of the USSR, but he is doing so with vastly fewer resources, and with a Russia that has negative demographics and a corresponding negative national energy. The only way to achieve such goals is with guile rather than overt energy and force. The same strategy has been seen in Russia’s new evolution of hybrid warfare in Ukraine. Similarly, sport in Russia has been supported by guile state-sponsored drug programs, some of which have been exposed. Yet, despite the challenges Russia still came 4th and displayed as it has done in the Ukraine and the Middle East that it is a force to still be reckoned with and not underestimated now or in the future.

The EU. Interestingly, the circulation of an EU medal table included Great Britain. This was rather ironic post a Brexit vote. However, when the medals from Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Greece and Denmark are all added together: 55 gold, 54 silver and 56 bronze, we come to a total of 165 medals. Interestingly, the fact that the individual nations are represented rather than the EU, shows that without political amalgamation the collective benefits cannot be manifested. Additionally, if one compares Britain’s gold and overall medals it won 27 compared to 55 (49%) and 67 compared to 165. With such a significant portion of success compared to the whole of the EU, and again using the concept of sport as a leading indicator to geopolitical trends, this is another core reason why Britain chose to chart her own course and leave the EU. Lastly, Germany since 2000 has shown a gradual decline in medals which echoes the downturn in its underlying demographics and relative power in the region. This again restates the power shift away from a post-war Europe dominated by Germany to one dominated in the future by Britain.