Foreign Policy Blogs

The Olympics and Great Power Competition

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The Olympics have finally concluded. These 2012 London Olympics will be remembered in many ways: NBC’s recorded coverage, Michael Phelps, Gabby’s 10,000 watt smile, 100 foot tall Voldemort, Usain Bolt, and British rock band after British rock band performing with strange props. It was an inspiring couple of weeks, and I enjoyed watching these amazing athletes do amazing things. As a proud American, I also took joy in watching my country win the medal count yet again. A country’s performance at the Olympics does not always mean that it has reached success at more meaningful metrics of well being and power (economic growth, employment, health, safety), but the two are not mutually exclusive. Creating and sustaining world class athletes takes resources and a culture that promotes competitiveness. The Olympics’ wide variety of events, from ping pong to weightlifting, also allows a country to showcase its diversity.

The Olympics provides a peaceful venue for the world’s great, and not so great, powers to put to the test their national resources, culture and diversity. Though the Olympic spirit of goodwill is strong, each country desires to show themselves well. In the case of the United States and China, though not as intense as the Cold War battles between Russia and America, the fight for eminence is strong. Can we view the results of this latest Olympics in the prism of great power competition? Of course we can! Will Inboden of Shadow Government does a service in ranking the top medal winners of 2012 along with their nominal GDP and defense budget size to give a high level view of current status of today’s great powers. Here’s his list:

Country 2012 Medal Rank GDP rank Defense budget rank

USA 1 1 1

China 2 2 2

Russia 3 9 3

United Kingdom 4 7 4

Germany 5 4 9

Japan 6 3 6

Australia 7 13 13

France 8 5 5

South Korea 9 15 12

Italy 10 8 11

India 37 11 8

Brazil 16 6 10

My takeaways:

  • China and United States are in a fierce battle for Olympic and world power. This is not a hot conflict, but it is a cold one, with each side trying their best to top the other.
  • Russia has a million problems, but her competitive spirit and commitment to invest resources on their athletic programs still keeps her at a high level not only at the Olympics, but in the game of thrones that is great power politics.
  • The sun may have set on the British Empire always, but it is still a vibrant nation with great rock bands.
  • Japan and Germany: What can you say?  Near the top as always.
  • India and Brazil: Two rising powers that still have a ways to go to reach the status of the big boys. Brazil had a nice showing at the Olympics and as host to the 2016 games will have their chance to show their growth and prosperity very shortly. In regards to India, which only received six medals (one gold), I asked an Indian friend why his home country fared so poorly. He replied, “Unless its cricket, we don’t care.”

I can sympathize. Where was the baseball?!



Patrick Frost
Patrick Frost

Patrick Frost recently graduated from New York University's Masters Program in Political Science - International Relations. His MA thesis analyzed the capabilities and objectives of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Central Asia and beyond and explored how these affected U.S. interests and policy.

Areas of Focus:
Eurasia, American Foreign Policy, Ideology, SCO

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