By Jerry Pacheco
The Olympic Games have traditionally been utilized by countries to show their prestige and might in the world. During the Cold War, Iron Curtain countries such as East Germany made it part of their national objective to do well at the Olympics to show the world that it was developed and a leader. As China opened up its economy, it also started focusing on winning Olympic medals as a demonstration of its modernization. If viewed as a test of national might and capabilities, the recently completed 2016 Olympic Games offer up some interesting results.
The 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics were historical for the U.S., which won 121 total medals, its most ever – 51 more than China in second place, and 54 more than the U.K. in third place. For Russia, which won a respectable total of 56 medals, the Games can only be looked at as less than stellar. Because of state-backed doping allegations, nearly all Russian athletes faced a ban on participating in Rio de Janeiro. At the last minute, the International Olympic Committee approved the participation of a portion of Russia’s team. However, the black eye brought on by the partial ban, and the fact that it finished so far behind one eastern and two western adversaries, could not be considered a positive development for the Olympic superpower. And only a couple of days after the closing ceremonies, Russian athletes were banned from the Rio Paralympic Games for doping.
Broken down by continent, Europe accounted for 48 percent of all Olympic medals, the combined Americas for 22 percent, Asia for 21 percent, Africa and Oceana for 5 percent each. If we view the Olympic Games in terms of trade blocs, countries of the European Union, with a population of approximately 510.1 million people, finished with a total of 241 medals. The North American Free Trade Agreement bloc, with a total of 480.1 million people, finished with 148 medals: U.S. (121), Canada (22), and Mexico (5 medals).
Of particular interest, and certain disappointment for its citizens, was Mexico’s continued poor showing in Olympics medal counts. In 2012, Mexico won seven Olympic medals, one of which was gold. In 2016, Mexico did not win a single gold medal, in comparison with Tajikistan, Fiji, Jordan, Kosovo, and Vietnam – all of which finished with one gold medal. Mexico finished the Games with five total medals, placing 44th on the list of all 78 countries that competed in 2016. However, given the fact that it only won one medal in the 1992 and 1996 Games, maybe it wasn’t such a bad year after all. In fact, the most medals it has won in an Olympic Games was nine in 1968, when Mexico City was the host.
Mexico can’t seem to get its Olympic program, including training programs and sponsors, together in order to compete at a level commensurate with its population and economy.
Its poor showing doesn’t mean that there aren’t world class athletes in Mexico. This was evidenced in Mexico winning gold in soccer at the 2012 London Olympics. Mexico also has world-class divers and distance runners.
When I lived in Mexico City, I didn’t live too far from the country’s main Olympic training facility. I remember driving around it to see what it was like, and my impression was that it was relatively small for such a large country. I pestered some Mexican friends of mine about why Mexico didn’t win more Olympic medals. The general answer was that the country’s Olympic training program was fraught with cronyism and favoritism, rather than competency and merit. I don’t know if this was true then or holds true now, but it is curious that such a prominent country routinely finishes behind countries with a fraction of its population and economy.
What does the final medal count mean for a country? Are the Olympics really a show of a country’s worthiness and might? Maybe. Olympic athletes are born with a certain talent or physical makeup that allow them to swim, run, jump, or endure at levels way above average. However, even the most gifted athlete requires a training regimen and a slew of support staff that maximizes his/her performance. This costs money in terms of facilities, equipment, trainers, food, travel, and supplies. These expenses can be covered by the government, sponsors, or by a combination of both. The mobilization of all of these resources is no small task, and requires organization and skill by a country’s Olympic program. How well a country does this can be interpreted as a reflection of its general capabilities when it is on the world’s stage at an Olympic Games.