IPRI – Islamabad Policy Research Institute

Power and Olympics

It is not a battle of gold medals or for first position in Olympics, but a struggle of rule over the world. Rio Summer Olympics 2016 are scheduled to be held on August 05, 2016. Undoubtedly, it is the biggest sports event of human history as more than 10,000 athletes from 206 countries will participate in the event. Though the event is a positive activity and a good contribution to an anarchic world where athletes from different states would indulge in healthy activities, yet there is a political dimension of the event, which has been neglected by scholars of international relations for more than a century: competition for dominance on world through showcasing power in Olympics.

Yes, it sounds odd that how nations can compete for domination in the world through showcasing their power in a sport event. But yes, they do. According to realists’ perspective, superpowers often compete in every sphere of life. Based on the argument, they compete in Olympics to showcase their dominance in sports, too. Superpowers are often known as nations that spend a great deal on human resource development. In Olympics, predictions for winners and runners up are made on the basis of population size and resources per person of the Gross Domestic Product, which represents how much a country is spending on its people and human resource development.

History of Olympics, which dates back to ancient times, bears the fact that competitors for the top position in Olympics often compete for hegemony over the world. The argument could be proved through history of Olympics. For instance, Athenians and Spartans were the main competitors in ancient Olympics, while at the same time both were trying to assert their hegemony over neighbouring city-states. According to Thucydides, Olympics were used to make or break alliances among various powerful states at that time.

The reemergence of Olympics in the 19th century again provided a chance to the centres of world power to demonstrate their superiority in sports. Hence, a new race for securing the first position in Olympics began with new vigour and zeal. The US, Germany, Great Britain, France and Sweden were the main competitors in Olympics for the first two decades of the 20th century. At the same period, they were also contenders for world hegemony. Interestingly, Germany won the 1936 Olympics, the time when German nation was gaining economic and military power under the leadership of Adolf Hitler. However, after World War II, Germany almost disappeared from Olympic medals’ table for almost two decades, from 1936 to 1956.

The Cold War is associated with the two archrivals, the US and Soviet Union. During the Cold War, Olympics were the testing point of showcasing power between the two superpowers. Hence, the era is overwhelmed with competition for securing first position at Olympics medals’ table. First time during Cold War in 1952, the US found Soviets as the main competitors in Olympics. The competition was very close as the US secured first position by merely leading from Soviet Union by five medals. However, in the Olympics of 1960, Soviets secured first position at the medals’ table against the US. Interestingly, this was the time when the USSR had witnessed advancements in every field of life ranging from science to economy. Apparently, it had an edge over the US in scientific, political and developmental sectors. The USSR had shown its superiority in space by launching two spacecrafts into the Earth orbit known as Sputnik-I and Sputnik-II. The same superiority was proven in Olympics medals’ table.

However, the end of Cold War provided greater space to the US for asserting its power in every sphere of worldly affairs including in Olympics. From 1992 onwards, the US secured first position with a vast margin over runners up. However, as the US had witnessed competition in world politics from new emerging players in late 1990s from China and Russia, the same competition affected Olympics medals’ table positions. The advent of 21st century had shifted the power centres of the world from the USSR and Western Europe to China and East Asia. Therefore, the world has witnessed a severe competition between the US and China for the first position in Olympics since 2004. Russia as the largest contender in worldly affairs also shows its presence by occupying third position in Olympics.

Apart from the winners and losers of a single Olympic event, the list of overall Olympic medal winners also reveals the fact that P5+1 — the US, Russia, China, Great Britain, France and Germany — are dominating in the chart. The US with lion’s share carries more than 1,000 gold medals, while the former USSR, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, France and China are the other contenders for the first position, respectively. Interestingly, over the years Germany has surpassed Great Britain and France in Olympic gold medals race, which is directly proportional to the gradual fading assertiveness of the two countries in world politics and increased assertiveness of Germany in international affairs.

To conclude, Olympics are the best testimony of identification of global power competitors. Nations that compete for the first position in Olympics actually demonstrate their power that they are also competing at international arena for dominance. Hence, Olympics are not the event for weak countries but a healthy and tangible competition among the contenders of hegemony over the world to showcase their human resource development and prosperity through these games.

Daily Times August 05, 2016, under the caption: “Power and Olympics”.

Disclaimer: Views expressed are of the writer and not necessarily reflective of IPRI policy.


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