by Glen Hamilton
The US Olympic team won more medals than any other country at this year’s Summer Games. The media’s constant drumbeat about American young people being lazy underachievers sure as hell didn’t apply to the delegation in Rio. Mercifully, media coverage of the national medal counts was minimal. Perhaps this was because the US won so many medals early on that the “race” ceased to be a compelling story. Another factor was that so much of NBC’s coverage was incredibly ethnocentric, at times cringingly so. As result, foreign athletes’ medal performances rarely received the recognition they deserved.
The pseudo-Cold War that the United States, China and Russia sometimes engage in during the Olympics didn’t manifest to same unpleasant degree as it has in the past. I didn’t detect a lot of schadenfreude over China’s underperformance in Rio. There were no suggestions of anyone going to the Chinese equivalent of Siberia that one might have expected in an earlier era. The official Chinese media expressed some initial disappointment, but they quickly pivoted to more “human interest” stories. Luckily for them, China had perhaps the most adorable medal-winner in recent memory, Fu Yuanhui. In the last year, China has made a high profile commitment of both public and private resources to success in soccer. The emphasis at the top has shifted away from padding Olympic medal counts by overwhelming other nations in minor sports to concentrating on the most important non-Olympic sporting event in the world, the World Cup. Avoiding a repeat of China’s recent abysmal performances in World Cup Qualifying might be more edifying to the current leadership than a dozen more medals in minor Olympic events. In 2008, when the US played China in basketball at the Beijing Olympics, I joked that if China wanted to impress people at home and abroad, they might want to try to excel in sports that people actually give a shit about. Finally, someone is listening to me!
If there is a current heir to the Soviet tradition of piling money into minor sports that award high numbers of medals, it would be Great Britain. Their impressive medal haul in Rio wasn’t merely the result of plowing lottery money into sport. It is also the result of Team GB’s focus on achieving maximum ROI efficiencies through a detailed cost/benefit analysis for each sport. The team’s success was grounded in a strange marriage of the aims of a Soviet-style Politburo and the methods of a private equity firm. What could possibly go wrong? Well, so far, not much actually. Team GB did great in Rio. Competing is important, but there is nothing wrong with excelling at the Olympics. Over the long haul, turning the focus away from medal-poor team sports that kids play and grown-ups appreciate might have diminishing returns over time. Of course, the exception proves the rule. Great Britain’s women’s field hockey team won a heroic final that was as exciting a game as I have watched in any sport for a long time.