As Chair of the Athletes Advisory Committee, one of the questions I often receive is: Does the Olympic medal count really matter? Usually, I would provide some (not so persuasive) answer and the conversation would end. But this question has always stuck with me. Does it matter that the United States typically wins more overall medals (and gold medals) at the Olympic Games than any other country?
During the 1980’s, Team USA winning the medal count became a national obsession. This national obsession was fueled in large part by the escalating tensions of the Cold War. America wanted to show the “evil” Soviets that the American way of doing things was far more superior than the communist system. This national mentality was not unlike that when Jesse Owens embarrassed Hitler’s so-called superior race at the 1936 Olympic Games, which were held in Berlin.
Recently, this question seems to be resurfacing, but a concrete answer continues to be elusive. As an Olympian, I absolutely want to say the medal count matters, but to whom? Team USA’s medal count matters to the competing athletes, but by and large the U.S. seems to expect to win the medal count, causing a sense of complacency among the general public. To truly know how important Team USA’s medal count is to national pride, we would have to lose the medal count. It’s sad to say but true. Let’s look at the 2004 Men’s Olympic Basketball team as our case study. This team was comprised of NBA All-Stars, NBA Champions, and future Hall of Famers including: Allen Iverson, Dwayne Wade, Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, Tim Duncan, Lamar Odom, and Richard Jefferson.
This team was expected to breeze through the Olympic Tournament and was a sure pick to win the gold. By the end of the Games, it became apparent that Team USA was not going to win the gold, or even the silver for that matter. They ended up winning the bronze medal, which was a travesty. How could Team USA Basketball lose to, of all countries, Argentina and Italy? Although a distant memory now, the national outcry was immense.
The medal count helps to reinforce the national supremacy of the U.S., and its athletes are expected to win and dominate their competitions. As a point of clarification, Team USA receives no financial government support for the Olympic Movement. It remains to be seen what America’s response would be if Team USA loses the medal count. Would we be forced to put extra funding into the Olympic Movement? I’m not so sure.
By contrast, most of the other National Olympic Committees around the world are financially supported, and their single goal is to beat the United States. I’ve traveled the world, competed in two Olympic Games for Team USA, and have had numerous conversations with other athletes. These athletes will tell you (or at least they have told me) their goal is to “beat the Americans.”
Countries like the U.K. are pouring millions of dollars into their Olympic Programs to win medals and beat the U.S. The Russians have poured millions of dollars into a state-sponsored doping program to beat the U.S. We are the country other countries love to hate and want to beat, which is another reason why the medal count matters to them. Until something happens which causes Team USA to lose the medal count to one of these other countries, my best answer to the question I started with is, Team USA’s medal doesn’t really matter…until we lose it. If that happens, then the medal count will matter that much more.
2016 Summer Olympic Games Medal Table (BBC Sport)
2012 Summer Olympic Games Medal Table (ESPN)
For the sake of argument, let’s expand on the idea that Team USA lost the medal count to Russia (or China). I think there would be pressure put on the USOC by Congress to never let that happen again. Losing the medal count to our biggest international political rivals could be a massive propaganda machine to showcase their supremacy over America. For a period of time, there would be a major push to provide additional support to the USA’s Olympic athletes in order to ensure victory at the Olympic Games. But how long before the country got complacent again and rested on its laurels? If the last two Summer Games are any indication, we won’t find out the ramifications of Team USA losing the medal count anytime soon. However, we should recognize