In the contest of nations, a spate of medals on Friday put the United States firmly ahead of China in the gold (41-37) and overall tally (94-81). The two giants had run neck- and-neck for a fortnight, with China holding a slender lead: till the track and field events began.
Since then, medals for the Chinese have slowed down to a crawl while the US started sprinting ahead, as it were. With only a day and some remaining, the London Olympics are running out of events and medals and the final placings are unlikely to see any upheaval. If anything, the US might just increase the lead further.
Why is this significant? The medals tally is of vanity value to the lesser-achieving nations, but for the topnotchers, it reflects more than just sporting prowess. In the case US and China particularly, it is accompanied by considerations and agendas of the different political and economic systems of the two countries.
From the 1948 Olympics till Seoul 1988, the battle for Olympic glory became a substitute for one-upmanship between the United States (and the western bloc) and the communist/socialist regimes, primarily USSR but also including East Germany and other countries behind the Iron Curtain.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 (and with it the Eastern Bloc), the United States looked like becoming the most powerful Olympic nation, but were soon pushed on the defensive by China who challenged their supremacy tellingly.
The fact that China, like the USSR earlier, was ideologically opposed to the US, willy-nilly made the Olympics a 'war by proxy’. Medals at the Games came to represent more than just sports achievements; rather the efficacy and political propriety of the respective nations.
Beginning with 15 golds (32 overall) in 1984 when they re-entered the Olympic fold, China’s successes grew steadily till they topped the gold medals at Beijing in 2008 with 51 out of a total 100. While China’s progress had been acknowledged, this was a stunning performance: a jump from 63 medals (32 gold) in 2004.
In Beijing, the US had more medals (110) but fewer gold (37) which led to a lot of heart-burn and not a little loaded speculation about how 'home’ conditions had helped the Chinese. As far as the Chinese were concerned, this success only highlighted their rise as a global Superpower in sundry respects.
The London Olympics were obviously a fresh face-off for supremacy between these two countries and much looked forward to by not just sports aficionados, but also in the centres of political power in the United States and China. Would the Chinese juggernaut be stopped?
As things stand, it appears that the US has subdued China for both gold and overall medals this time, but not necessarily to the conviction of the Chinese. A report by Elizabeth Economy, Director of Asia Studies for the Council of Foreign Relations titled 'China’s Great Debate’ (posted on the CNN World website on Friday) relates, apart from the criticisms that China has invited in the methods, expense and purposes of training its Olympic athletes, also the Chinese experience at such mega sporting events.
"Even more Chinese media attention, however,’’ says the report of this, "has been paid to what China’s Olympic experience signals for the country’s place in the world. As Caixin reports, many Chinese believe their athletes have been unfairly treated by the rest of the world simply because they are Chinese. There is anger over the silver-instead-of-gold finish by China’s amazing gymnastics rings master Chen Yibing; fury over the disqualifications of Chinese cycling and badminton teams; and outrage over the accusations of doping by the gold medal-winning swimmer Ye Shiwen.
"Some commentators argue that these cases are simply one more example of how the rest of the world is attempting to keep China from assuming its rightful place as a global power. In a Global Times article, for example, director of the China Institute of International Studies Qu Xing argues, “It’s unavoidable that we will encounter jealousy and even unexpected obstructions during the process of rising, as is the case in other fields.” ‘’
Clearly, there are two sides to this ongoing struggle for supremacy in its myriad forms, of which the London Olympics is the newest chapter. This time, the weight of medals seem to be loaded in favour of the US, but the future promises to be even more intense and competitive.
Meanwhile, for those academically inclined and interested in mapping trends, the top 15 medal winning countries has not changed much since the 1996 Olympics, barring some movements up or down the ladder.
The US, China, Russia, Germany, France, Australia, South Korea, Britain, Japan, Italy and France have been most consistently in this cluster, suggesting a strong sports culture, and resources and infrastructure to actualise potential.
Cuba has declined in the medals tally to an extent, but Jamaica has risen quite impressively through its sprinters. However, these thinly populated, not so-well-to-do Caribbean countries – alongwith a few from Africa like Kenya and Ethiopia – show a greater medals to population ratio than several more developed ones.
Footnote: In the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, India won two medals (hockey gold and a bronze for wrestler Kashba Jadhav while China won none. How the medal tallies of the two countries have progressed since then tells its own story.