As the 2010 Winter Olympic Games drew to a close, the United States found itself leading , at least according to the most widely used tabulations, the overall medals table for the first time since 1932. But anyone tempted to invest that success with a significance that transcends the ski slope, the ice rink, or the half-pipe might first take a look back at the last Olympics held in Canada—Calgary 1988.
The Calgary Winter Games were dominated by the Soviet Union—29 medals, including 11 golds—and East Germany—25 medals, 9 gold. The medal haul for Team USA? 6 total medals, with 2 golds. No real surprises there for winter sports buffs. The Soviet Union had topped the medals standings at all but two winter games since first participating in 1956 and East Germany had trailed only the Soviet Union in 1972, 1976, and 1980 and led the field in 1984. As for the USA, 1988 was the worst gold medal showing since Grenoble in 1968 and the lowest overall medal total since Innsbruck in 1964.
Olivier Morin/Getty Images
Eastern Bloc strength and American weakness both fit comfortably within the reigning paradigm of the era's geopolitical punditry. That year's book to read was Paul Kennedy's Rise and Fall of the Great Powers with its best-selling diagnosis of a United States that was enervated by "imperial overstretch" like the Roman Empire and Imperial Spain before it. Meanwhile, East Germany was saluted for having made socialism work—"A Riddle for Communists: Why Does The East German Economy Prosper?" the New York Times was asking—and credited with a Gross Domestic Product greater than that of Great Britain or France by CIA analysts.
As for the Soviet Union, Gorbachev's glasnost and perestroika were regarded as having strengthened a regime and system that was built to last. Socialism, John Kenneth Galbraith declared, was working "far better than would have been imagined fifty or seventy years ago." "Communism will continue to exist, Galbraith said; it was "foolish to imagine that the Soviet Union is going to become a capitalist country."
Of course, as we were soon to learn, even as their Olympic teams were hauling in their medals, East Germany was headed for collapse and dissolution, the Soviet Union was on its last legs, and by the time the Winter Olympics next convened at Albertville in 1992, the once intimidating initials 'DDR" or "CCCP" were nowhere to be seen and neither the Soviet Union nor East Germany existed at all, never mind atop the medal winners platform.
So as the USA has displaced the once mighty Soviet Union and East Germany at the head of the medals table, should we heed the paradoxical lesson of 1988 and join in historian Niall Ferguson's warning that the US is poised to be the next fiscally challenged Greece or even cite Olympic success as counter-intuitive evidence that The End of the American Era (as the title of a recent book proclaimed, is at hand?
But perhaps, given the perils of prior punditry, it is a good omen for the American future that this time around Olympics success is not being accompanied by similarly sanguine assessments of the victorious nation's prospects. Or should the lesson of 1988 be that we not try to correlate—either directly or inversely—the trend line of world affairs with what we see reflected in Vancouver's ice? An eminently reasonable position indeed. But where's the fun in that?