dli1_Matthias HangstGetty Images_USchinaolympics Matthias Hangst/Getty Images

What the Olympic Medal Count Says About China and America

The 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games provide a wealth of information for analysts of the great-power competition in which China and the United States are now engaged. It also offers three crucial lessons, which if heeded, could help to defuse bilateral tensions.

BEIJING – Among educated and internationally savvy Chinese, no current topic is more despised than the bickering over Chinese and American medal counts at the Tokyo Olympics. Narrow-minded nationalism holds scant interest for them, just as it does for most educated Americans – and, generally, for me. But, as an economist, I am not so dismissive toward the medal-count discussion.

In fact, a country’s Olympic medal count can be very telling. First, it can reflect a country’s resources – how much physical and social capital it has accumulated. The larger and more prosperous a country’s economy, the more likely its citizens are to have the leisure time and material resources to invest in supporting their national teams’ preparation for the Games.

Second, medals can be an indicator of a country’s social stability. A country ravaged by war or disease – such as, this year, COVID-19 – is unlikely to have the luxury of directing much attention, let alone funds, to its athletes. Viewed through this lens, the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games provides a wealth of information for analysts of the great-power competition in which China and the United States are now engaged, and offers three crucial lessons.

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