Sport and Politics: an Olympic history

Munich 1972 was the first Olympics I remember. Aged 8 I have hazy memories of Olga Korbut in the ring, Lasse Viren and Valery Borzov on the track, Mark Spitz in the pool and hooded men in the Village. The Palestinian involvement was an early indication to me the Olympics was about more than sport. Here in the middle of the Cold War, the US and USSR were once again battling for supremacy in Germany.

For half of the 20th century, the US was best performed in the Olympic medal count but the Russians beat them in 1956 and 1960. As the space race intensified, the US regained control in the 1960s.  In Munich it was the turn of the USSR to come out ahead. Behind the Americans East Germany was running a very creditable third well ahead of their western rivals despite a population of just 16 million people. They would rub salt in fellow German wounds with another home soil victory in the World Cup two years later in the only time they would ever meet (the West lost that battle but won the war against the Dutch in the final).
With the pride of communism on the line, the 70s and 80s were the glory era of East German sport. The German College for Physical Culture produced the coaches, trainers and sports medicine personnel responsible for East Germany’s remarkable success. There was drugs and cheating but there was also genuine success. The problem was, as 1980 Olympic 110-metre hurdles gold medallist Thomas Munkelt said, “we ran our sports by the performance principle, but not our economy.”
The 1980 Olympics was East Germany’s high water mark. It was also the year any doubt the Olympics wasn’t political was wiped out with the west’s boycott over Afghanistan. Without the US, the East Germans ran second to the Russians. The Russians got revenge and boycotted Los Angeles in 1984. They cited “security concerns, chauvinistic sentiments and an anti-Soviet hysteria whipped up in the United States” but everyone knew it was tit-for-tat.
Ceausescu’s Romania was the one Communist Bloc country that ignored Chernenko’s directive and they finished second to the Americans in the medal count. 1984 was notable for another reason. Five years earlier, the IOC decided to rename the Republic of China to Chinese Taipei. With Taiwan downgraded, China would not lose face by competing for the first time since 1952. They finished a creditable fourth in their first outing.
The Seoul Olympics in 1988 was the first truly global Olympics. It was also the first since Montreal to feature the US and the Soviets. East Germany were there too and they forced the Americans into third place. Other eastern bloc countries in the top ten were Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania. The Chinese dropped to 11th.  But East Germany’s second high water mark masked a rapidly changing tide.
The stunning collapse of Eastern bloc Communism meant the medal table in Barcelona 1992 looked radically different. The USSR was the last to go in 1991 so there was still a strong “Unified Team” consisting of 12 of the old 15 Soviet republics. They were unified enough to win the most medals at Barcelona. It would be the last time Moscow would finish in front. East Germany was no more and China was back up to fourth behind the united Germany. There was still an East German clone in Barcelona as one of the last of the Communist countries Cuba finished fifth.
There was further change in the New World Order at Atlanta 1996. On home soil, the Americans beat the Russians for the first time since 1968. China stayed fourth but cut the gap on Germany as they were doing in the real world. In Sydney 2000, China beat Germany and got the same amount of medals as the hosts (58) but with 28 golds to Australia’s 16. At Athens, China went clear as number two to the Americans. They got fewer medals than the Russians but as they did in Sydney, they knew how to get gold.
In Beijing they did to the Americans what they did to the Russians four years before. The US had 110 medals to China’s 100 but it was 51-36 to the hosts in golds. China’s remarkable powerhouse economic advance was on display in Beijing and the last four years have accelerated the trend. It will be no surprise, even without home advantage, they get more medals and golds than anyone else in London.
They have won the first gold of the 2012 London Olympics (though arguably that honour belongs to Specsavers). Top-ranked Yi Siling of China won the women’s 10-metre air rifle at Royal Artillery Barracks on Saturday. Another Chinese woman, Yu Dan won the bronze. If the 21st century is the Asian century, then the place to watch for proof will be the Olympic Medal tally. It won’t be too long before the likes of India and Indonesia become the new East Germany – but getting the economics right as well as the sport.

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