How White Guys Lost Their Stranglehold on the Olympic Games

A quadrennial sports event does not tell you everything you need to know about the last century in global economics. But a 116-year study of Olympic podiums tells us more than you'd think.

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In 1896, in the first modern Olympic games, in Athens, 40 of the 43 golds were won by countries in Europe or the United States. The games were nominally international, but the podium was utterly dominated by European men and their friends in the former British colonies.

Even in the 1960 games, non-European/non-Australian/non-American teams combined for only nine total medals. Italy alone accounted for 80. The US, the UK, and Germany accounted for another 110, together. Women's share of the athlete pool was still under 20%.

But by 2008, the world had changed dramatically, and the medal count reflected it. This time, China led the world in gold medals. Korea was 7th. Japan was 8th. (Italy had fallen to 9th.)

A quadrennial sports event does not tell you everything you need to know about the global economy, but the Olympic podiums tell us quite a bit. It tells the story of how what we consider the old "developed" -- i.e.: the G7 -- has lost share of world domination to emerging countries, such as the BRICs and the larger N11. This graph, from a Goldman Sachs report on the economics of the Olympics, tells the story of how the world caught up in the world games.

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In what sports have poorer countries caught up the fastest? Goldman answers that question, too, with a fun graphic on emerging economies dominating some sports like weightlifting, gymnastics, and diving, while struggling to compete in swimming and rowing especially.

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Finally, my favorite picture from the report shows women's rising share of total athletes. Just as the economic development of non-European countries meant they could afford to develop and train their people for the Olympics' particular set of skills, the coinciding ascendance of women's rights also changed the Olympic games from an all-male intra-European track-and-field meet to a true world event.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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