Tag Archives: Olympics

The Politics of the Olympics

While the International Olympic Committee has long promoted its vision of the Olympic Games as an apolitical celebration of international peace and sporting competition, the games have regularly been the focal point of considerable political attention (and often tension). In the 1936 Games in Berlin, Hitler’s hope to use the games as a showcase of German racial superiority were dashed by African American Jesse Owen’s record-breaking performance. And in 1968, Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ use of the Black Power salute on the medal podium drew attention to the struggle for racial equality in the United States. In 1972, the terrorist organization Black September killed 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team before they themselves were killed in a standoff with German police. In 1980, the United States and its allies boycotted the Olympic Games in Moscow, only to have the Soviet Union and its allies return the favor four years later.

This year, the Olympic politics have centered on Russia’s repression of gay rights, a point highlighted by Greece’s rainbow-fingered gloves,  Canada’s Olympic commercial,  and the composition of the US Olympic Delegation. In this short video, the New York Times highlights the historical connection between the Olympics and politics.

(This article was previously published by the Politics Matters blog and is reprinted here with permission).

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Political Dissidence in Russia

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putting last week ordered the release of several high profile prisoners over the past two weeks in an effort to improve the country’s beleaguered human rights record ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Saatchi. Billionaire (and former political rival to Putin) Mikhail Khodorkovsky fled Russia and sought asylum in Germany. Thirty members of Greenpeace arrested for protesting Russian drilling operations in the Arctic were also freed, as were two members of the Russian punk rock group Pussy Riot.

But the move appears to have had little success, and the two members of the group took to the media to call for a “Putin-free system.”

Meanwhile, President Obama named several gay and lesbian athletes as part of the US Olympic delegation, and other international leaders have announced their intention to boycott the games. But many people are asking whether a boycott will make a difference.

What do you think? Will a boycott of the Winter Olympic Games affect human rights policy in Russia? Should the United States boycott the Olympics? Why?

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

A suicide bomb attack in Iran killed several senior commanders of the country’s elite Revolutionary Guard and at least twenty tribal leaders in the southeastern province of Sistan-Baluchestan, which borders Pakistan and Afghanistan. The bombing was the first major terrorist attack in Iran in more than twenty years, and represents a major public relations blow for the Iranian government. A group known as Jundallah claimed responsibility for the attack, though the Iranian government has also attempted to place blame on the British government for the attack, claiming that Britain has an “overt and hidden hand in terrorist attack against Iran.” Juddallah is a Pakistan-based radical Sunni group campaigning for independence for ethnic Baluchis in Iran.

In an unrelated development, the Russian government indicated it would be willing to impose sanctions on Iran if the Iranian government fails to implement promises it made to the international community regarding its nuclear program. This represents a significant hardening of the Russian position on Iran, which it had previously dismissed as “unproductive.”

In news from outside Iran in the last week:

1. The United Nations-backed panel investigating elections in Afghanistan appears poised to overturn August election results. The panel is recommending that a number of suspicious ballots be thrown out, thus necessitating a runoff election between incumbent president Hamid Karzai and his rival, Abdullah Abdullah. The United States is attempting to resolve the growing political crisis, which threatens to complicate President Barack Obama’s decision on whether or not to expand the U.S. troop presence in the country.

2. Fights between rival drug gangs rocked Rio de Janeiro over the weekend, only one week after the city was named host of the 2016 summer Olympics. At least fourteen people were killed in the violence, and a police helicopter was shot down as members of the Comando Vermelho, Rio’s largest gang, and its rival, Amigos dos Amigos, fought in the favelas that surround the city. The state governor, Sergio Cabral, informed the International Olympic Committee of the events, noting, “We told the OIC this is not a simple matter, and they know this, and we want to arrive in 201 with Rio in peace before, during, and after the games.”

3. The Pakistani government launched a new offensive against Taliban strongholds in the South Waziristan region. The new offensive comes after two weeks in which the Taliban had engaged in a series of attacks against the Pakistani government and military. The Pakistani government believes that the Taliban may have as many as 10,000 militant fighters assembled in the region, which is also believed to be the hiding location for Osama bin Laden.

4. In a dramatic regional contrast, citizens in Botswana are expected to hand the government if Ian Khama a victory in Friday’s elections, while the government of neighboring Zimbabwe is struggling to address the continuing political instability there. Botswana is widely viewed as a success story in Southern Africa, due in part to its political stability and part to its vast diamond wealth.  But as global diamond prices fall, the economy of Botswana may begin to struggle. The government faces a severe budget shortfall, due primarily to a dramatic decline in diamond prices, necessitating a $1.5 billion loan from the African Development Bank.

Meanwhile, in Zimbabwe, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai threatened to “disengage” from working with President Robert Mugabe. The two have been part of a power sharing arrangement since Febraury, but Tsvangarai’s party, the Movement for Democratic Change, has been marginalized from real political power.

5. The United States budget deficit has reached a record level of $1.4 trillion for the last fiscal year, as the government expanded spending significantly in order to address the global economic downturn. The deficit was approximately 10 percent of gross domestic product, but was $162 billion less than the administration forecast in August. Tax revenue fell by more than 16 percent as a result of the economic downturn, but spending increased by more than 18 percent.

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

There have been several interesting developments in European politics over the past few days. Final results were released Saturday from the Irish referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. The Irish approved the treaty by a wide margin (with 67.1% of voters in favor) after defeating the treaty in June 2008 by a 53.4 percent majority. Ireland’s approval of the treaty represents an important step forward in approving a restructuring of the European Union; a restructuring that would expand the influence of the European Parliament, establish a full-time presidency for the EU (a position for which former British Prime Minister Tony Blair may be tapped), and limit the ability of national governments to veto EU legislation in certain areas. But despite the approval by Irish voters, Czech President Vaclav Klaus tempered expectations, stating that he may delay signing the treaty until a Czech appeals court can review the treaty and assess its implications for Czech sovereignty.

Two important elections also took place recently. In Germany, Angela Merkel won reelection as Germany’s Chancellor. The victory of her center-right coalition promises to continue her emphasis on greater openness for the German economy. Preliminary results from Greek elections on Sunday suggest that the Socialists will soundly defeat the ruling New Democracy party, possibly securing a legislative majority in the national parliament. The contradictory results suggest an interesting restructuring of European politics.

In news from outside of the European Union last week:

1. Government ministers at the annual meeting of the International Monetary Fund in Turkey this week rejected warnings by the banking sector that new financial regulations could undermine economic growth. Representatives from the United States, Italy, and the United Kingdom all rejected claims by the global bankers association that regulatory overkill could undermine global economic growth and result in the creation of fewer jobs. But despite apparent agreement on the need for new financial regulations, considerable debate over the exact nature and structure of those regulations remains, and an agreement on the details appears to be a ways off.

2. The International Olympic Committee granted Rio de Janeiro the right to host the 2016 Olympic Games on Friday, making Rio the first South American city to host the Olympics. A last minute visit by President Barack Obama to Copenhagen was unable to convince the IOC to grant the games to Chicago, which was also bidding to host. Several observers have raised concerns that Obama’s unsuccessful campaign to win the games may undermine his ability to deliver on health care reform and foreign policy objectives.

3. A massive earthquake in Indonesia resulted in the deaths of an estimated 1,100 people last week. The tragedy follows a tsunami in the South Pacific that killed more than 100 people. Concerns that another, larger quake could strike soon were also raised on Saturday. International aid campaigns have begun delivering supplies to the region, but the widespread devastation of government facilities in the region could hamper aid efforts.

4. The President of Burkina Faso has been dispatched to meet with the military rulers of Guinea to address the emerging crisis in the country. More than 100 people have been killed in Guinea in the past week, as the county’s military government has moved to quash opposition protests. On Thursday, Cellou Dalein Diallo, former prime minister and current opposition leader, was forced to flee the country, as Captain Moussa Dadis Camara, who came to power as the country’s leader in a December coup, has attempted to solidify his hold on power.

5. On Sunday, the government of Iran agreed to permit International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to visit a secret uranium enrichment facility made public by the United States last week. The discovery of the site led the Russian government to concede the possibility of United Nations sanctions on the Iranian government—a proposal which both Russia and China have long opposed. The Iranian decision comes ahead of scheduled six-party talks, involving the United States, Russia, France, China, Britain, Germany, and Iran, at the end of the month.

Measuring ‘Success’ at the Olympics

With the Olympic Games officially closed, the final medal counts are in. The United States and China both performed well, garnering 110 and 100 total medals respectively.  But is total medal count the only measure of Olympic success?  Of course not.  The purists among us (and the International Olympic Committee itself) would argue that participating in the Games is its own reward, medal or not.  Setting this position aside, we can still measure success in several different ways, yielding very different results.

The top 10 overall medal winners this year were:

  1. United States (110 total medals)
  2. China (100 medals)
  3. Russia (72)
  4. Great Britain (47)
  5. Australia (46)
  6. Germany (41)
  7. France (40)
  8. South Korea (31)
  9. Italy (28)
  10. Ukraine (27)

Gold Medal Count.  By this count, it’s perfection or nothing at all. In gold medal count, China runs away with the total, winning 51 golds. The United States places second with 36, and Russia remains in third with 23.  By this measure, Japan and the Netherlands overperform, shifting up 3 and 6 places respectively, while France underperforms, losing 3 places.

  1. China (51 golds, +1 place from overall standings)
  2. United States (36 golds, -1 place from overall)
  3. Russia (23 golds, no change from overall standings)
  4. Great Britain (19 golds, no change from overall standings)
  5. Germany (16 golds, +1 place from overall)
  6. Australia (14 golds, -1 place from overall standings)
  7. South Korea (13 golds, +1 place from overall)
  8. Japan (9 golds, +3 places from overall standings)
  9. Italy (8 golds, no change from overall standings)
  10. Three countries (France, Ukraine, and the Netherlands) tied with 7 gold medals each)

Population per Medal. Countries with larger populations can draw upon a wider pool of talent to field Olympic athletes.  Consequently, we might expect them to perform better than countries with smaller populations.  Calculating the number of people for each medal a country won (population per medal) gives us a fundamentally different medal count.  Biggest winners by this count: Iceland, which goes up 63 places in standing, and the Bahamas, which goes up 59.  The biggest declines are seen by China (-66 places) and the United States (-44 places).

  1. Bahamas (165,500 people/medal, +59 places from overall standing)
  2. Jamaica (267,727 people/medal, +18 places from overall)
  3. Iceland (316,252 people/medal, +63 places from overall)
  4. Slovenia (405,800 people/medal, +31 places from overall)
  5. Australia (465,500 people/medal, no change from overall)
  6. Cuba (469,500 people/medal, +6 places from overall)
  7. New Zealand (474,933 people/medal, +17 places from overall)
  8. Armenia (500,333 people/medal, +25 places from overall)
  9. Belarus (510,000 people/medal, +4 places from overall)
  10. Mongolia (657,250 people/medal, +38 places from overall)

And where do our top overall performers come in?

   26. Great Britain (1,234,043 people/medal, -22 places from overall standing)
   32. South Korea (1,555,613 people/medal, -24 places from overall standing)
   33. France (1,611,829 people/medal, -26 places from overall standing)
   34. Ukraine (1,705,900 people/medal, -24 places from overall standing)
   38. Russia (1,970,697 people/medal, -35 places from overall standing)
  39. Germany (2,005,312 people/medal, -22 places from overall standing)
  40. Italy (2,129,260 people/medal, -31 places from overall standing)
  45. United States (2,771,664 people/medal, -44 places from overall standing)
  68. China (13,255,630 people/medal, -66 places from overall standing)

Total Medals by GDP: As countries become more wealthy, they have more resources to spend on sporting facilities, training athletes, and so on.  Consequently, we’d expect relatively wealthier countries to perform better than relatively poor countries.  How do the number stack up?  And what happens to the top 10 countries from our overall medal count?  The biggest increases in standing are seen by countries like Kyrgyzstan (+59), Tajikistan (+50), and Mongolia (+45).  The biggest declines are in the standings of the United States (-74), Australia (-69), and Germany (-58).

  1. North Korea ($370 GDP/medal, +20 places from overall standings)
  2. Jamaica ($810 GDP/medal, +18 places from overall)
  3. Mongola ($964 GDP/medal, +45 places from overall)
  4. Armenia ($1,545 GDP/medal, +29 places from overall)
  5. Georgia ($1,592 GDP/medal, +25 places from overall)
  6. Kyrgyzstan ($1,744 GDP/medal, +59 places from overall)
  7. Tajikistan ($1,850 GDP/medal, +50 places from overall)
  8. Cuba ($1,879 GDP/medal, +4 places from overall)
  9. Belarus ($2,038 GDP/medal, +4 places from overall)
  10. Kenya ($2,107 GDP/medal, +8 places from overall)

And our top overall performers?

   18. Ukraine ($5,204 GDP/medal, -8 places from overall standing)
   35. Russia ($17,861 GDP/medal, -32 places from overall)
   42. South Korea ($31,674 GDP/medal, -34 places from overall)
   44. China ($54,686 GDP/medal, -42 places from overall)
   55. Great Britain ($59,000 GDP/medal, -51 places from overall)
   57. France ($62,875 GDP/medal, -50 places from overall)
   61. Italy ($73,857 GDP/medal, -52 places from overall)
   64. Germany ($79,488 GDP/medal, -58 places from overall)
   74. Australia ($122,233 GDP/medal, -69 places from overall)
   75. United States ($127,900 GDP/medal, -74 places from overall)

And last but not least, total medals by GDP per capita.  By this measure, Egypt fares very well (+81 places), as does North Korea (+31) and Uzbekistan (+29).  The biggest declines are seen in Italy (-32) and Great Britain (-30).   Our top performers by this measure:

  1. North Korea ($16 GDP per capta per medal, +31 from overall standings)
  2. China ($25  GDP per capta per medal, no change from overall)
  3. Egypt ($30 GDP per capta per medal, +81 from overall)
  4. Ethiopia ($56 GDP per capta per medal, +24 from overall)
  5. Kenya ($113 GDP per capta per medal, +13 from overall)
  6. Ukraine ($123 GDP per capta per medal, +4 from overall)
  7. Uzbekistan ($126 GDP per capta per medal, +29 from overall)
  8. Russia ($167 GDP per capta per medal, -5 from overall)
  9. Cuba ($210 GDP per capta per medal, +3 from overall)
  10. Belarus ($214 GDP per capta per medal, +3 from overall)

And our top performers (apart from Russia and China, included above):

21. United States ($411 GDP per capta per medal, -20 from overall)
26. South Korea ($657 GDP per capta per medal, -18 from overall)
29. Australia ($904 GDP per capta per medal, -24 from overall)
31. Germany ($967 GDP per capta per medal, -25 from overall)
32. France ($975 GDP per capta per medal, -25 from overall)
34. Great Britain ($1,017 GDP per capta per medal, -30 from overall)
41. Italy ($1,239 GDP per capta per medal, -32from overall)

So what do these data tell us about international relations and the Olympics?  About economic development and sport?  About any host of other topics?  And which is the best (or most accurate, or most fair) way to calculate Olympic standings?  I’ll leave that for you to ponder.  But for now, consider the following fun facts:

1.  Economist Daniel Johnson at Colorado College created a simple model to forecast Olympic success.  His formula incorporated five variables (GDP per capita, total population, political structure (democratic, authoritarian, military or communist), climate (the number of frost days) and home-nation bias) to project success.  His success rate was good (95-96% correlation)

2. African countries won a total of 40 medals, representing the continent’s best performance at the Olympics ever.  For three countries (Mauritius’ bronze in bantamweight boxing, Sudan’s silver in the men’s 800 meters, and Togo’s bronze in men’s single kayak) won their first ever Oympic medals.  Unforatunately many of the athletes were based overseas.

3. China’s Project 119 demonstrates an increased state commitment to sport—a way of demonstrating to the rest of the world China’s continued rise.  The project represents a continuation of the state commitment to sport common in communist governments, still reflected in the performance of post-communist transition countries (like Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan).

4. Michael Phelps dramatic success placed him in a league of his own.  If he were a country, he would have tied for ninth place in gold medal count, ahead of countries like France, Netherlands, Spain, Canada, Argentina, Switzerland, Brazil and Mexico.

The data used here are taken from Symworld.com, which provides comprhenesive statistics for all Olympic medal winners.

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

The opening of the Olympic Games this week pushed many stories to the sidelines.  Here are some of the important stories from last week that you might have missed.

1.  On Friday, fighting between Russian and Georgian forces broke out, marking the worst fighting in nearly twenty years.  Georgia claims that the two countries are now officially at war, and accusses Russia of choosing this moment hoping that the Olympic Games will divert attention away from their action.  Russia claims they had to intervene to prevent ethnic cleansing on the part of the Georgian government; Georgia claims Russia is involved in ethnic cleansing of its own.  The UN Security Council has since taken up the matter.

2. Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf canceled his planned trip to the opening of the Olympic Games after the country’s ruling coalition announced plans for impeachment. Musharraf, a former general who came to power through a military coup, has been widely touted as one of the United States’ closest allies in the war on terror, despite the inability of the Pakistani government to effectively address the presence of al Qaeda-linked groups in the northwestern part of the country.  The planned impeachment raises concerns about the stability of Pakistan. 

3. Salim Hamdan, former driver for Osama bin Laden, was sentenced on Thursday to 66 months in prison for supporting terrorism.  After being found not guilty on a number of other charges, Hamdan could be free in less than 6 months after being granted credit for the five years he has already served as a detainee at Guantanamo Bay.  The verdict was the first issued by the military tribunal system established to try prisoners captured by the US government in the war on terror.  The Pentagon has already announced that Hamdan may be held as an enemy combatant even after he completes the sentence issued by the military tribunal. 

4. An economic slowdown in Germany has raised concerns about the economic stability of the European Union.  The Euro declined to $1.5378 to US $1, marking a seven-week low.  A sharp increase in bankruptcies and the fact that Japan is close to declaring it is in a recession confirm the fact that the economic downturn in the United States is having a global impact.

5. Violence in the Xinjiang region in northwestern China broke out late last week, as Muslim separatists hoped to use the media focus on the country to draw attention to their cause.  The attacks, which included both gun battles and the use of explosives, marked the largest outbreak of violence in the region since the 1990s.

Nationalism and the Olympics

A story on NPR this morning got me thinking about nationalism.  Morning Edition aired an interview with Miles Hoffman about the use of national anthems at the Olympics.  The first national anthem was the use of “God Save the King” by the British (Americans would better know the tune as “My Country Tis of Thee”) in 1745.  The story also included clips from the Chinese, French, Australian, and German anthems (all of which are available for a quick listen on the NPR site).

Because nationalism has had such a dramatic impact on the modern world, we often forget that the idea of “nation” is a relatively recent construct.  We usually credit France with the first use of the idea of nationhood—the French Republic’s creed of “liberty, equality, fraternity” provided a common sense of identity that Napoleon used to encourage citizens to support and join the French army.

Sociologist Anthony Smith argues that nations generally share a number of common characteristics that differentiate them from other nations.  These may include a fixed homeland (current or historical), a shared sense of history and struggle, a common set of beliefs—especially religious beliefs—a common language, and a common set of customs.  Benedict Anderson argues that this common identity provides the basis for a shared sense of community among members of a nation—a concept he calls the “imagined community”.

So, as you watch the Olympic Games on television over next couple of weeks, think about the reason you root for the national athletes of your home country.  It provides a peaceful way to feel pride in the accomplishments of your national athletes and may just help to illustrate Anderson’s idea of imagined communities.