• Hamsini Hariharan

The geopolitics behind the Olympics

This article was originally published in the The Hindu thREAD on August 26, 2016 and can be accessed here.


Historically, performance at the Olympics has been seen as an indicator of a nation's economic levels. But this measure is flawed as there are other factors at play too.


Bomb scares, doping allegations, unready rooms, sexual harassment and the clinking of gold medals turned all eyes to Rio for the past month. Indeed, the Olympic Torch may represent ‘peace, unity and friendship’ but the Games have always been about more than sportsmanship. The objective is to carry out sports diplomacy, however the result is often dictated by power politics. This year, for instance, the participation of the first ever team of displaced athletes named ‘Team Refugees’ brings light to the instability of political regimes around the world and the impact it has on civilians.

The Olympics display elements of nation branding, is an opportunity for countries to display their soft power and attract investment and tourism. Ten years ago, Brazil was touted as one the strongest economies in the world and its hosting the Olympics was to indicate its standing among middle powers. However, the Rio Olympics seem to have had the opposite impression. The impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, and the terrible recession instead showcase the simmering political discord within the country. A simultaneous narrative is often one of urban development (or lack of) as countries strive to provide ‘world class facilities’. Generally, there is a trend of the hosts using the mega event to ramp up infrastructure but this has also exposed the various pitfalls within the cities themselves. Questions about the preparedness of Rio, has also brought the spotlight to the various problems in Brazil, from air pollution and high crime rates to the pandemic Zika virus. The criticism levied against Rio is not unique: the Olympics are beset by criticism and political signaling.

The International Olympic Committee does not publish a global ranking by country as it maintains that sports do not depend on nationalities. But this rhetoric has not hindered analysis of the medals tables. A country’s performance at the Olympics is generally considered a reflection of two major indicators: its GDP per capita reflected in the amount of disposable income that can be diverted towards sports and its population which offers a pool of skilled people in sports. In International Relations, a similar calculation was formulated by Paul Kennedy to understand the empirical basis of a great power. Kennedy was the first to draw a causal link between a Great Power’s economic rise and fall and its growth and decline as a world empire.


By: Hamsini. Data source: ESPN, Topend Sports, Olympics Museum.

An analysis of the trends of the Olympic Games since its inception bears many lessons. Until the 1920s, the country that hosted the Olympics was also bound to win: Greece, France, the United States, Great Britain and Sweden each hosted the Olympics between 1896 and 1912 and came out on top respectively. The Games were then cancelled due to the First World War and were reinstituted in 1920. The United States won the highest number of medals in the next four consecutive Olympics until the 1936 Berlin Games. This edition of the Games went down in history for multiple reasons ranging from Hitler’s display of the ideal Aryan race to Jesse Owens winning a gold medal.

The Games were again suspended in 1940 and 1944 due to the Second World War. From 1948 London Olympics onwards, the eleven editions of the Game became emblematic of the Cold War Antagonism. The most remarkable event in the history of the Olympics were the 1972 Munich Olympic Games in which 11 Israeli athletes killed by Palestinian extremists. Boycotts were common as countries wanted to display political displeasure such as in the 1980 Moscow Games and the 1984 Los Angeles Games when the US and the USSR did not participate respectively.


Countries' Performance at Olympics. By: Hamsini. Data source: ESPN, Topend Sports, Olympics Museum.

Since 1996, the US has consistently raked the highest number medals at each Olympics. A closer analysis of the last ten games reveals that the countries that have performed well over the last ten games or 36 years are all members of the G-20. Except for Canada, all the members of the G-7 have also consistently secured a place in the Olympics.

The idea of Olympic performance as an indicator of its GDP is problematic as it does not explain countries like India which should be doing much better than its current abysmal performance at Rio 2016. It would do well to remember that some countries have to also focus on bettering basic public infrastructure rather than on infrastructure necessary for sports. Sporting cultures also need to be taken into consideration. For a sport to be included in the Olympic list, it needs to meet various criteria, such as popularity, participation, financial viability and so on. However, sports such as squash, cricket or even jousting is not included despite widespread support showing a Eurocentric tilt to the Olympics. Questions about the organisation of the games, the selection of hosts, the hypocrisy of political choices all flavour the mega sporting event year after year.

The messy history of the Olympic Games has translated into a devoted fan following for various sports, with technology allowing for live broadcast and constant reminders. It is an important nation building activity, turning a politically indifferent aam aadmi (common man) into a patriotic tally keeper. It is impossible to keep politics out of sports, particularly at an event whose very foundation rests on national identity. What ensues however, is an extravagant display of games and geopolitics, which sometimes intertwine.

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