Beyond the Gold: Creating Alternative Ways to Measure Olympic Success and Failure (Part 1)


Dr. Sohail Inayatullah and Dr. Levi Obijiofor

We love watching the Olympics, and are inspired by athletic and organizational excellence. However, the Olympics are not a neutral venue. Every medal is based on a stream of money, power, genes and deep culture. In this 2-part essay [1] we unpack the political-economy of the Olympics.

Becoming an Olympic superstar

So, you want to be an Olympic Superstar. How should you plan your career, to best ensure success? Three factors stand out in deciding which teams get Olympic medals. First is the size of the population. The more people, the larger pool of talent there is to draw on. However, size by itself is meaningless. Two other factors are far more important: wealth and organization. Wealthier nations can afford better training facilities, better managers and scientific techniques. Organisational excellence ensures that the entire weight of State and Market (corporate sponsorships) work for the national goal of winning. This means ignoring economic rationalism, but instead developing state support for athletes, marshalling resources for national victory. China is the most recent successful example of this formula.

Generally, this means that the majority of the poorer nations (and the poor within rich nations) will lag on the medal count. Well, why should this matter? Aren’t the Olympics just sports, a fun television extravaganza? Yes and no. First, they are about marketing your city, hoping that the billions spent leads to future investments. Ahead of the 2000 Olympics, Sydney spent $8 billion (Australian dollars) on the hope of becoming a future trade and financial centre.  Already, the current host of the 2012 Olympics, London has spent in excess of 15 billion pound sterling.[2] Sometimes it does not work out so well.  Spain is still reeling from its $US6.1 billion debt. It took Montreal nearly 30 years ­ until 2005 ­ to pay off the $2.7 billion it owed after the 1976 Summer Games.[3]

The Olympics are also about marketing culture—showing others that one’s nation is modern. Second, they are about imagining the future, exhibiting to self and the world what values the nation aspires towards.  England is declaring to the world that it is not a declining power; with every medal, it announces that a different future is possible. Sunset is not destiny.

The Olympics are thus filled with symbolic politics. The dark side of the Olympic equation is that they re-inscribe the rank ordering of nations and peoples. The strong and mighty and beautiful walk with heads held high, while losers continue the slide down the path, eventually becoming persons and nations that do not matter. This partly occurs because the Olympics are seen (and marketed) as part of humanity’s global heritage instead of a unique Western construct. The Olympic flame passing on unblemished from ancient Athens to the modern era is about the ‘natural’ transmission of Hellenic values to global culture: the Olympics is partly about the ascension of the West even as China challenges.

Type of Sports

The dominance of the rich is maintained as well by the type of sports that are conducted. The contest therefore is not only about sports, but about valuing certain sports, histories and cultures over others. If this is not the case, why do we have the Winter Olympics, games that are arguably designed for the West and the countries ‘blessed’ with winter? No one remembered to design another Olympics for those countries that, due to geography, have only dry and rainy seasons. Can’t we have a Steaming Olympics or Dry Olympics also?

By promoting the Summer Olympics as a triumph of globalization and by ensuring that every country participates in the events determined by Western authorities, through the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the West indirectly promotes its own values. Ironically, the IOC has many members from the non-West. Yet decisions about the Summer Olympics almost always seem to leave the non-West with no viable alternatives. Of course there are options, such as boycotting future Olympic Games if the IOC rejects traditional sports from the non-West.

The dilemma here is that non-participation in the Olympics means to be marginalised in the international economic and political spheres as well. If one plays and loses badly, as most of the non-West do, a deep-seated cultural inferiority complex arises. All that is left to do is to join, to be ‘developmentalised’. And if one plays and wins, beating the West in their own game, there are two common responses: “They are drug cheaters,” or the more famed, “They have better genes.” Hard work, excellence, sacrifice are assumed to be only Western values.

So, to invest resources in preparation for the Games every four years is to play ‘catch-up’ with the West. Instead of spending money on developing traditional sports, non-Western nations buy into the sports development model. This devalues local culture, creating a further first world in the third.

In these global times, there is no space for not playing the game; the challenge is to redefine the terms in which games are played and the actual games played.

Genuine Sports?

Traditional sports from the non-West are kept out of the Olympics because the West has not decreed them as genuine sports. But what if non-Western nations began to focus on sports in which they have a comparative advantage? How, for example, would the IOC react to including traditional non-Western sporting skills such as drum dancing, hand fishing, tree climbing with bare hands, 100 metres sprint race with disused car tyres or wheels, running with an egg delicately placed on the head, sack race, trap shooting with slings/catapult but no guns, wood chopping, and so on? Or kabadi —traditional wrestling—as in Pakistan? What about camel riding to accommodate the Maghrebs of the Sahara region? With all these included in a redefined Olympics, will the West continue to dominate? As a Somali proverb states, “what you lose in the fire you must seek in the ashes.”

Is such a level playing field possible? The future options for the non-West in the Olympics must be to either build on its own model of traditional sports or to utilise its numbers in the IOC to force a change. The non-West cannot continue participation in an Olympics where winning on Western terms is the essence. To do so will promote financial inequity and help the rich Western nations to market their products (i.e., athletics, culture and a linear view of history and future).

More significant than winning on Western terms has been the over-emphasis on winning itself (not cultural exchange and the refinement of the human spirit, as Olympic propaganda proclaims). This theme was evident in advertisements during the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, as recorded by Roy MacGregor of The Ottawa Citizen. Here are a few: “You don’t win silver, you lose gold”; “If you’re not here to win, you’re a tourist;” “Second place is the first loser;” and “No one trains for second place.” By promoting these views, the Olympic Games are saying: winners are superior; winners are from the West; the non-West are losers and are inferior to the West. The Sydney 2000 Olympic Games as shown in Australia focused exclusively on those who won gold, except for the occasional hero story of the loser still finishing (“My country sent me here not to start but to finish”). This Australian story has continued at the London Olympics, however, success in Sydney 2000 and Beijing 2008 Games is now replaced with “failure” in London.

Each culture has its own sports. Some are individualistic, some competitive, and some based on ancient myths. By only giving official credence to the sports of a particular culture, our sporting bio-diversity is lost. A particular view of sports wins over other nominations of health and excellence.


[1] An earlier version of this essay appeared as “Cultural Imperatives of Olympics,” The Guardian (15 September 1996), A10 and as “Beyond the gold: should we create new futures for the Olympics,” New Renaissance (Spring 2002), 9-11. A web version via New Renaissance Journal is at:

[2] John Huxley, “London paints the town red, white and blue,” Sydney Morning Herald (14 August 2012). Huxley asks after the party, now for the 16 billion dollar hangover (with 8.1% unemployed). Accessed 14 August 2012.

[3] Accessed 11 august 2012.

This piece originally appeared at this link and has been republished with permission of the author


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