The Olympics send a very clear message, not about individualism, or about race, but about the importance of government.
The BBC website offers a nice list of medal rankings by nation. It’s an interesting list, because of what it says about human diversity, race and culture. The US at the moment is ranked second, almost neck and neck with China, followed by Great Britain and Russia. During the Wold War, it was always the US and the USSR, followed by East Germany. Here’s the top of the list, more or less in order of total medals, as of 9 am on 8/5/2012:
S Korea (20)
The list demonstrates overwhelmingly, first, how culture matters more than race. Why is India, the second most populous nation in the world, not even in the top twenty, when China is so high? If Africans are naturally fast, an argument often used to explain the success of Jamaican sprinters, where are the Nigerian sprinters? Or more pertinent, where are the Cuban sprinters? Where are the Brazilian track and field athletes? When it comes to the Olympics, Brazil is the western hemisphere equivalent of India. How can the US basketball team, staffed mostly by black Americans, blow Nigeria away and then almost lose to Lithuania?
The answer is obvious: culture matters more than race. Asian Indians don’t tend to play the Olympic sports. We have to assume that India does not make organization of and for sport a priority, while China does. Put cricket in the Olympics, and the whole picture changes: it’s about the cultural preference for cricket, and the political decision to exclude cricket. Nigeria is a poor country, relatively unstable. It has no basketball infrastructure, meaning not just courts with hoops, but high school and college and professional teams, and enough surplus money to fund them on a large scale. Brazilians excel at soccer, but the FIFA world cup proves the same point as the Olympics, the relative meaninglessness of “race.”
Second, it’s pretty clear that to excel at the Olympics you need first and foremost a well organized, stable government. And here again the Olympics tend to prove the opposite of what we expect. That is, what we see in the medal table is not simply the triumph of individualism, but the triumph of a well organized state in which individual effort can be nurtured and supported.
This is essentially a progressive argument. An athlete on the medal stand earns and deserves the world’s applause, but he or she didn’t get there on their own. The medal list proves overwhelmingly that they needed the support of government and society.
The American Spectator disagrees with this, and posted an editorial mocking the idea. The Spectator is just willfully dense. The modern Olympics are entirely about nationalism and the political nation-state. They were imagined and established as a framework for individual nations to compete. To imagine them as the triumph of individualism, you have to ignore the same thing the Spectator tends to ignore about markets and economic success: the social and political infrastructure that makes success possible.
Just google the words “you didn’t win that” and see how often the Spectator’s argument is being made. It’s a willfully blind argument. Any parent of any Olympic athlete is well aware of the familial and social supports necessary to enable that athlete’s success. It’s entirely reasonable and possible to recognize that individual success depends on social context. There’s nothing complicated or difficult to understand about it, unless you are a right-wing zealot, and incapable of mastering the slightest level of complexity.
I may be wrong, but I think the United States cares more about “winning” the Olympics than just about any other country (with the possible exception of China). Perhaps the reason we, as a nation, do care so much is because we all recognize — without actually admitting it — that the Olympics are entirely unfair, and that the structurally sound and socially advanced countries have an inherent advantage. We care because we want to make sure the world knows we’re one of those countries with the advantage.
The “elephant in the room” since the economic crisis began has been that the United States isn’t as great as it used to be. We’re trillions of dollars in debt, fighting wars that the entire world doesn’t want us fighting, and issues such as gay marriage and healthcare illuminate, to both right-wingers and left-wingers, that maybe we’re not as free as we thought (or, rather, we’re not the correct kind of free).
How do you prove to the world, and more importantly, to ourselves that we’re not a country in decline? By “winning” the Olympics, of course. If we win, it means we must have money because look at how good our basketball players are. We’re not a nation divided. I mean, did you see the US men’s swimming relay? That looks like cohesion to me.
Of course the Olympics are about culture and government stability. But don’t tell us that. You might remind us that, at the end of the day, our problems are our problems, whether Lebron hits that three-pointer or not.