Olympic glory can be related to three competing worldviews. The first is the belief that sports represents the ultimate triumph of a ‘state’. In the Cold War years, the Soviets and the countries of the Communist bloc saw in the Olympics an opportunity to proclaim the supremacy of their ideology. Trained in the highly secretive and regimented world of communism, their athletic achievements were designed to prove the ‘superiority’ of a political system. What the Soviets, East Germans and Cubans successfully attempted through the 1970s and 80s, the Chinese have taken to another level in recent years. Number one in the medal tally in the Olympics is seen as confirmation of China’s ascent as the new global superpower.
The second successful Olympic model was designed by the Americans. At its core was the affirmation in the American ‘way of life’, a belief that sports was best practised in open societies based on the principle of equal opportunity. It is no coincidence that Jesse Owens was the first American Olympic superstar. What even elections in the 1930s could not provide the American black — a right to vote — Owens was seen to provide on the sports field, a right to equality and dignity. Since then, American triumphs in the Olympics have revolved around the principle that sports can break all barriers, aided by a dynamic market economy that sees every medal won as having commercial value.
The third medal-winning Olympic model is built around the belief that sporting success is intrinsically linked to birth, race and environment. The Kenyans and the Ethiopians in middle and long distance running, the Jamaicans in sprint, the East Asians in sports like table tennis and badminton are seen to be beneficiaries of a body type and an environment that promotes excellence in specific games.