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What the Olympics say About how the World Works

5 August 2012

The Olympics. A time when the world comes together through sport. Or at least, that’s the idea. What really happens during the Olympics of course, is that countries compete against each other to see who will emerge as best – and which country will bring home the most gold.

Over the course of these two weeks while we talk about how proud we are of our athletes (because of course we are,) and their own individual stories, there’s really just one goal in mind – to earn medals. Those medals are truly a sign of the athlete’s own personal greatness; but they’re also symbolic in another way. Stack them up against each other, country for country, and you can see who’s really emerging victorious – for the two weeks during the Olympics, and in a much ‘bigger picture’ kind of way leading up to them, and afterwards.

Before the crash of the housing market led the United States to a complete demise, the States emerged over China in the 2004 Athens Summer Olympics. Four years later in 2008, the collapse in the States had just begun; and it showed in that year’s Beijing Olympics, in which China came out with the most medals. At the time and still now, that was largely attributed to the economy of the two countries. It’s an interesting theory; and one that could have something substantial behind it.

If the Olympics are based purely on sports, as they’re intended to be, then why did Australia rank only fourth in the number of gold medals it kept at home during the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney? Australia is a country that’s hugely focused on athletics, entertainment, and competition. They put on a phenomenal show and, just like everyone else, had some of the best athletes on the planet competing. So why the low score? Could it be that, while Australia has never been a country to be in any real trouble, they’ve also never been a global threat to other countries such as China, Russia, and the United States. This fact alone seems to nod towards the fact that perhaps there’s more than just sports behind the Olympics after all.

So what do the medal standings as they are today say about the global economy?

Looking at the chart above, it doesn’t seem as though today’s medal standings are keeping up with what’s actually going on in the global economy. The United States and China are neck-and-neck at 53 medals a piece; but they are nowhere near evenly scored on the global balance sheet. In fact, the U.S. is heavily indebted to China and, unless China calls that debt in, they will be for some time. While the U.S. is on the recovery, one small blip on their national economic map could send them plummeting again. And their total collapse during 2008, and their extremely slow recovery since, has this economy at a very sluggish pace right now. Despite those 53 medals.

Europe as a whole is doing miserably as an economy right now; yet Great Britain holds the third spot in medal-winning; and France holds the sixth. Germany and Italy also make it into the top ten, while Italy is closely following Greece on the path to bankruptcy. Speaking of Greece, standing at 42nd place within the medal ranks, they may be one of the few European countries that’s rank accurately reflects where they currently stand in the global economy. (For a full list of countries and their medal standings, click here.)

But Great Britain and Italy aren’t the only ones defying the medal rankings. Brazil, a country that’s currently the sixth largest economy in the world, comes in at #17 currently at the London Olympics.

So are the Olympics an event that not only brings the world together through sport, but also stacks them up against each other in regards to how much power they hold, or where they stand in the economy? While that may have been true historically, judging from the standings thus far at the London Olympics, it seems like this concept too – just like the global economy – is one that’s ever-changing.

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