The Latest

THE LATEST

THE LATEST THINKING

THE LATEST THINKING

The opinions of THE LATEST’s guest contributors are their own.

Power Play at the Olympics

Greta Scott

Posted on August 3, 2021 22:15

2 users

The term “superpower” was first used in 1944 to describe the UK, US and the USSR. During the 20th century, Britain lost influence and, with the collapse of the USSR in 1991, the US became the only superpower. This led Samuel Huntington to write: “There is now only one superpower. But that does not mean that the world is unipolar [rather] a uni-multipolar system with one superpower and several major powers.” So what we can learn about the current world order from this year’s Olympics?

It's no secret that sports aren't the only thing in play during the Olympic Games. Many will remember the U.S. boycotting the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, and medal races between Russia and the U.S. acting as a quasi-proxy war during the Cold War. In 2021, the Olympics are far from a fight between Russia and America. Today, they are a scramble for medals, where the group of countries aiming for victory in the medals table has diversified along with the move from a bipolar world order to the uni-multipolar system Huntington described. The top spots in the medals table are less predictable than they once were; in fact, the U.S. and Russia haven't been together in first and second place since 2000. So far, the dominant force in these Olympics has been China. If the pendulum swing we came to know last century between American and Soviet victories was reflective of the political climate, then what does China's current dominance show?

 

Many see China as the world's next superpower; it’s the largest trading power and manufacturer in the world, providing it with international political leverage, and has built up its military significantly over the last years. In order to look the part, China has learnt that superpowers wear gold. Success in sporting competitions does much to increase a country's perception as a superpower, as the USSR illustrates. 

China’s fight for medals is tied to its very raison d’être. Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, there has been a strong sense that China needs to reverse centuries of domination by Western powers and to end its perception as the "sick man of Asia." However, China's sporting prowess is rather new — China only really began competing at the Olympics in 1984.

Now in Tokyo, China is turning the cogs of its medal machine, fielding 413 athletes, the highest number since Beijing 2008. The sacrifices Chinese Olympians have to make to win gold are immense. Children are scouted and sent to sports schools from a young age, missing out on an academic education, and seeing their families only a few times a year. These children are trained in sports which traditionally are underfunded in the West in order to increase China's likelihood of winning a medal. In fact, 75% of the Olympic golds won by China were in just six sports: shooting, diving, gymnastics, weightlifting, badminton and table tennis.

It seems that the Chinese population has bought into the belief that gold medals equal national prowess; many athletes who have failed to win gold have faced abuse online. As Dr. Florian Schneider notes, "To these people, Olympic medal tables are real-time trackers of national prowess and, by extension, of national dignity. In that context, someone who fails at a competition against foreigners has let down or even betrayed the nation."

As China moves up the ranks in the medals tables, so it seems to grow in power, prestige and influence, and indeed, vice versa.

Greta Scott

Posted on August 3, 2021 22:15

Comments

comments powered by Disqus

France's Mickael Mawem qualifies in first place for the sport climbing final as the sport makes its Olympic debut.

THE LATEST THINKING

Video Site Tour

The Latest
The Latest

Subscribe to THE LATEST Newsletter.

The Latest
The Latest

Share this TLT through...

The Latest