Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Why Do Countries Care About Winning Olympic Medals?

I may have brought this up back during the 2008 Summer Olympics, but I’m too lazy to go back and look.

Why do countries care so much about winning Olympic medals?

For example, Australia is apparently one of the top spenders on Olympic programs, investing $250 million dollars in its Olympic program and other sports annually. Canada is currently spending upwards of $150 million on a program devoted to the Winter Olympics called “Own the Podium.” (Notably, U.S. Olympic athletes currently receive little or no government funding; they rely largely on private sponsors.)

Why would Australia, Canada, or their citizens care so much about winning medals? Why would Australia or Canada be willing to spend a lot of money funding programs in efforts to win Olympic medals? Is this effort and expenditure made to demonstrate dominance and superiority for the benefit of a foreign audience? For what purpose? Is it to demonstrate dominance and superiority in relation to other countries for the benefit of the domestic audience in Australia or Canada? Again, for what purpose? To buck up their sense of pride? What is the benefit obtained in that?

I can imagine the ready responses: It’s a natural patriotic impulse, to want to win, and defeat other countries, show that Australians/Canadians are the best. The people of Australia/Canada can experience a vicarious sense of superiority when they watch one of their own win a gold medal. It’s no different than rooting for the Bears if you live in Chicago, or for the UNC basketball team if you go to UNC. (But professional sports exist to make a profit, and college sports often make money for the schools, raise the profile of the schools, etc. What does Canada actually get from winning medals -- besides a feeling of pride?)

Fischer vs. Spassky, 1972

During the Cold War, the Olympic battles between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. (and East Germany) were just another front in the Cold War -- a continuation of the ideological battle fought by other means. Olympic victories were seen to validate the ideology and system of the prevailing side. So, the U.S. hockey team’s Miracle on Ice at Lake Placid demonstrated the vitality and spirit of the Capitalist system; the U.S.S.R.’s domination in figure skating, gymnastics, wrestling, etc. demonstrated the glories of the Worker’s Paradise. The Olympic victories during the Cold War were part of an ongoing propaganda war between the two sides, the purpose of which was to attract or keep others within the Capitalist/Communist fold. But what would Canada or Australia have to prove to other countries? Why would they care what other countries thought of them based on Olympic performances?

(Of course, there could be other benefits. National unity, perhaps providing inspiration for kids to be active and get into sports, thus producing a healthier and more productive population, etc. But these seem like pretty attenuated results.)

Winning Olympic medals doesn’t really achieve anything for Australia or Canada, or earn them anything. It’s just a nice thing, and the Australians and Canadians back home get a nice feeling inside when their athletes win. But what is that worth? I guess there’s no accounting for preferences, and if that is where a country like Australia or Canada wants to spend their money, that’s their decision. It’s probably a better use of money than spending trillions on invasions of other countries. (And maybe that is the very point?)