How to explain national performance at the Olympics?

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By John J. Metzler

PARIS — As the London Olympics set new records for athletic achievements, the Summer Games equally highlight global competitions, both in the field of sport and nationalism.   And despite all the naysayers that the London Games would not be ready, the traditional British can-do attitude prevailed (as they did in London 1948), and came  through with a spectacular opening ceremony and subsequent sporting contests.

I’ve been watching the Games from across the Channel.  Here with a splendid setting of Paris and, to the  backdrop of Notre Dame cathedral and the River Seine,  the city of Paris has a widescreen for viewing in a British themed park.  During the Opening Ceremony, most  popular with the crowd were the segments  with James Bond and the Queen, as well as the Mr. Bean skit showing  the buffoonish comic  in a marathon running sequence based on the Chariots of Fire movie (an amazing Olympic movie by the way).  Mr. Bean was uproariously popular with the largely French audience.

China and both Koreas were in the top 5 medal winners as of Aug. 1. Gold medallists Kai Qin and Yutong Luo of China pose on the podium during the medal ceremony for the Men's Synchronised 3m Springboard final on Day 5 of the London 2012 Olympic Games. / Adam Pretty / Getty Images

Just as an aside, the British industrial revolution segment with rising smokestacks without the soot was clever, but the National Health Service (NHS) skit with dancing doctors, prancing pediatric nurses, and somersaulting  kids evoked the kind of gymnastic  ode to socialist medicine one would come to expect in Pyongyang, not  London.

Now to sport.

Team USA, despite those “Made in China” Ralph Lauren outfits I groused about a few columns back, are giving an amazing athletic performance both on land and in the water.  Team USA ranks second among the 200 national team contestants.

The People’s Republic of China now is in first place with the Mainland’s athletes still apparently in the afterglow of the Beijing 2008 Olympics.  China’s powerhouse team already has ten gold medals and counting.  Tough training, rigorous discipline and State-directed focus seems to be paying off, at least for now.   Importantly Taiwan, the “other China” is separately represented, under the rubric  “Chinese/Taipei.”  So far, Taiwan’s athletes have scored a medal in the shadow of the dragon.

France ranks third globally with nine medals, four of them gold.  The French team has been especially adept in the water from swimming to kayaking.

The Koreans have been doing remarkably well.  South Korea now stands at number four in the overall rankings and communist North Korea amazingly ranks number five.  Clearly, the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics, an amazing achievement putting  South Korea on a global pedestal,  may be part of it, as much as South Korea’s increasingly global status.

Interestingly, of the top five teams in the current standings, three are East Asian. The Russian team, once a sporting dynamo (with or without steroids) has fallen to number nine.   Naturally many of the other teams have scored well with Japan winning a Gold in Judo, Hungary a Gold in Fencing, and Germany Gold in equestrian.  Expect the medal standings  to show dramatic shifts in the next days.

An academic  question?  Do the powerhouse sporting teams largely come from the biggest  G-8 economies?

Most do such as the USA, France, Italy, Germany, Russia and Japan.   But Britain and Canada have not as of yet.

Furthermore while many economists have touted the virtues of the BRICS; the business acronym for the purportedly mega-economies of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, it’s really only  China and Russia who score in the top ten list in sports here.

What about population size?   Well, there’s no question about Mainland China but what about nearly as populous India?  The USA has a large population as does Brazil, but Team USA leads without question.
What about the actual sports offered?   Both team and individual sports usually favor the big countries, but if this were the winter Olympics, small populations countries like Austria, Norway and Switzerland would score disproportionally well.

And despite all the hype and spectacle for the Summer Olympics, do the Games really excite interest? Surprisingly a poll in the French daily Le Figaro found that a mere 50 percent of the people were interested in the Olympic Games with 49.9 percent saying they are not.

Still stated another way the Olympics provide a welcome respite from the seemingly endless Euro banking crisis, conflict in the Middle East, and perpetual political campaign in the USA.  Although the clash of sports teams does not seem to reach the din and hyper-nationalism of World Cup Football, the Olympics certainly provide a proper venue for excellence, national pride,  and the often once in a lifetime chance for athletes’ to set sporting records.

John J. Metzler is a U.N. correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He writes weekly for

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