An Olympics like no other
Tokyo 2020 (for so it will be known, even though it took place in 2021) played out well in the second year of the pandemic, despite the host city struggling under a state of emergency as the highly contagious Delta variant continued to spread in Japan as elsewhere. There were no spectators to watch the events and the opening and closing ceremonies took place in an eerily empty stadium. Travel into and out of Japan was restricted to the athletes; their trainers and officials; and a select few journalists, all of whom were required to take a Covid-19 test before gaining entry to the country.
Nevertheless, this Olympiad produced some stunning performances from the world’s greatest athletes. Those who have argued that men and women are reaching the limits of their inherent potential have once again been confounded, with many new world records being set. Advances in training techniques, nutrition, sports psychology and even in materials science (including the substance from which the athletics track is constructed) continue to push the boundaries of athletic achievement – with amazing results.
A survey of the medals table at the conclusion of the Games confirmed many of our expectations − but also yielded some surprises.
But first, a word on methodology. Most media outlets that compile medals tables (such as the BBC and most UK newspapers) weight gold above silver, and silver above bronze – so that top place might be accorded to the nation achieving the most gold medals but not necessarily the most medals overall. Numerous other media outlets, including the New York Times, rank competing nations in order of total medals won. In this analysis, I’ll be using the BBC medals table.
The Olympic Games is not just a sporting tournament where athletes can demonstrate their prowess. They are, as they were in ancient Greece, a forum in which the leading nations can showcase their status and significance before a global audience.
The top three
The top three places precisely match the ranking of the world’s largest economies by GDP in dollar terms – US, China, then Japan. For much of the games China occupied top place but the Americans overtook them in the second week when the track and field events got going. China and the US were expected to occupy the top two positions based on past performance. Both put a huge amount of resources into the training of athletes for international competitions. There may also be some correlation between military expenditure and athletic performance, given that many athletes commence their sporting careers while in service.
Japan’s performance was extraordinary. It has only ranked third twice before – in the previous Tokyo Olympics of 1964 and in Mexico City in 1968. It seems that competitors who compete on home soil are conferred an advantage even if they are not cheered on by their compatriots in the stadia. The Japanese have always excelled at judo and this time they took away a haul of nine golds in this discipline alone.
Team GB, representing the UK, with 375 athletes, came in fourth with a total of 65 medals (the same as they achieved in London in 2012), across 24 disciplines. This was somewhat better than most sporting commentators had anticipated.
The British team included athletes from all four nations of the UK. Athletes from Northern Ireland have the option to compete under the Team GB banner or for the Republic of Ireland. This year, 31 competitors from Northern Ireland participated in the Games − six on Team GB and 25 on Team Ireland (39th place).
The British total of 22 gold medals represents a huge advance on the unimpressive one gold secured in the 1996 Atlanta games, by Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pincent in the coxless pair (rowing). Since then, funding for training young aspirant Olympians has increased hugely thanks to National Lottery money via UK Sport which then distributes funds to organisations such as Sport England. The National Lottery provided £345m in preparation for Tokyo 2020. There are also other government grants and corporate sponsorship. Sport in the UK is no longer underfunded; although arguably, some sports (such as weightlifting) have been much more sparingly funded than others, such as rowing. This makes Emily Campbell’s silver − Britain’s first female weightlifting medal ever – all the more remarkable.
Team GB failed to win medals in some of the events in which historically it has excelled – cycling, rowing and equestrianism. The joke in 2012 was that they won most of their medals sitting down. But in compensation for that, Team GB won gold this time at several new events which have no previous track record – including skateboarding (Sky Brown) and BMX racing (Bethany Shriever). Team GB’s results on the track – in particular, men’s middle-distance running, where it has a formidable reputation – were disappointing. The failure of Sir Mo Farah to qualify and the absence of other champions in the final heats took its toll.
The UK owes its resurgence in the Olympics not only to funding but to its vibrant popular culture wherein sporting achievement is celebrated by the young. Some athletes such as Tom Daley and Adam Peaty have achieved celebrity status with huge followings on Instagram (3.4m and 534,000 followers, respectively). Other factors include the high degree of female participation (for the first time there were more females in the squad than males).
On a medals-to-population basis, with roughly one medal per million inhabitants, the UK easily outperformed the top three. (The US came home with one medal per three million people, China one for every 16 million and Japan one medal for every 2.1 million). With new talent in the pipeline, Team GB’s prospects for Paris 2024 look excellent. Watch out for ‘power couple’ cyclists Jason and Laura Kenny.
The Russian Federation was obliged to compete under the banner of the Russian Olympic Committee due to the doping scandal. They secured fifth place in the table, with 20 golds and 71 medals in all. The Russians still dominate gymnastics and certain field events such as shot putting and pole vaulting.
The key to Russian Olympic success lies in the resources allocated to sport. Even modest Russian provincial towns boast superb sports facilities, often including Olympic-sized swimming pools. Talent scouts tour schools to identify potential Olympians while they are still young. Russia’s athletes will remain part of the international sporting elite indefinitely.
Australia came in at sixth in the table with 46 medals, of which 17 were gold (one medal for every 620,000 citizens). Considering that Australia has a population of just 25.8 million people, that is an extraordinary achievement, even for an admittedly sports-crazy country.
Sixth to tenth place: Europe
Europe was next on the table, with each of the following countries winning 10 gold medals: the Netherlands (36 medals in total); France (33); Germany (37); and Italy (40).
Eleventh to twentieth: the best of the rest
We find the two other CANZUK (Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK) countries here in close proximity, both with seven golds. Canada stands at number 11 with 24 medals and New Zealand at number 13 with 20 medals. Canada has 38.1 million people and New Zealand has just 5.1 million, so its performance is particularly impressive.
All the CANZUK countries are great sporting nations. If they had competed jointly, they would have beaten the US, by winning 53 golds to its 39 – even though they collectively have less than half the population of the US. There is the issue that each participating nation is limited to three entrants per contest, so the advantage may not have been so crushing. But I still think the point is valid.
It is interesting to note that the three most notable Visegrád Group nations are clustered in the fourth quintile. Hungary ranks 15th with six golds and 20 medals; Poland 17th (4/14); and the Czech Republic 18th (4/11). They have much in common, even though three Visegrád states speak Slavic languages while the Hungarians speak the ancient Finno-Ugric Magyar language.
Brazil (12th place: seven gold/21 medals in total) did not really do itself justice for a nation of 210 million football-crazy citizens. South Korea ranked in 16th place with six golds and 20 medals in all. Four of those golds were in archery – demonstrating the theory of competitive advantage through specialisation applied to sport. I wonder how Korea would perform if the North (population 25.5 million) and the South (51.7 million) were reunited. I suspect a united Korea would be one of the leading nations on the planet.
Kenya (19th place) was far and away the most successful African nation, with four golds (all in running events, including both the women’s and men’s marathons) and 10 medals in total. Kenya would also be my number-one investment destination in Africa right now.
From Spain (ranked 22nd) downwards, no nation won more than three gold medals. However, special mention should go to the Bahamas with its two gold medals (women’s and men’s 400 metres), and tiny San Marino, which won one silver and two bronze medals. That’s equivalent to one medal for every 10,000 people – a metric that no other nation came close to achieving.
India sent 120 athletes to Tokyo 2020 and returned with seven medals, including one gold (in the men’s javelin) − their best tally to date. That put India in 48th place – roughly level with Venezuela, Hong Kong and the Philippines. But as a country with a population of 1.35 billion people, which is soon to overtake China as the world’s most populous country, and with the world’s sixth-largest GDP, it is worth considering why India’s Olympic performance is not stronger. After all, Indians are hugely keen on cricket and there is a strong wrestling tradition. But many neither participate in sport, nor spectate. This may reflect the fact that there is still a huge population of near destitute people, despite the emergence of India’s prosperous middle class. About half the population still does not have access to sanitation.
In total, 86 nations won medals in Tokyo out of 206 national teams (plus the multinational refugee team), meaning that 121 teams won no medals at all. At the bottom of the table sits war-torn Syria, with one bronze. Of the total of 1,075 medals awarded in Tokyo, 259 were won by the top three countries, and 510 by the top eight countries.
The medals table reminds us that this is a very unequal world, with nearly all wealth and power concentrated in the hands of just a couple of dozen nations.
A godson has come to stay − he is nineteen years old and is studying at art school. He offered for my perusal an essay he has submitted on K-pop, the extraordinary wave of pop culture coming out of South Korea. His treatise considers the oeuvre of such boy bands as BTS.
I cannot vouch for their music, but BTS command millions of fans from all over the world. Their official Instagram page cites 47.3m followers, many of whom, according to the data analytics, are mainly 20-somethings in Europe and North America. Of all the advanced and now wealthy East Asian nations, only South Korea can boast such extensive soft power – and it’s growing.
One reference in my godson’s K-pop treatise struck me. It was to the French Marxist social philosopher, Jean Baudrillard (1929-2007), who popularised the concept of hyper-reality – a concept Koreans have supposedly adopted. Marx, of course, was German, but most modern Marxist thought has emanated from France – Foucault, Lacan, Derrida, Barthes, Lyotard and the rest. It seems ironic that since the UK voted for Brexit in June 2016, the popularity of French Marxist thought in British universities seems to have increased, rather than lessened.
My godson, since arriving, has been spending much of the time painting. I have occasionally intruded – an opportunity to see his work and the creative process. His art is largely abstract and I love it.
Then he discovered the music of Mozart by watching the K-drama (Korean drama) The Penthouse on Netflix. So, we listened to Mozart’s Requiem together on Amazon Music – and thanked one another for sharing the experience.
Forget cultural appropriation: this is the age of cultural synthesis.