Did the United States Really Win the Most Olympic Medals?

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The European Union crushed the U.S.—and BRICs just may be a threat in Rio 2016.

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The London Olympics are over, the torch is doused, the banner passed on to Rio. The National Health is service back to the drudgery of caring for its patients after its (unlikely) Opening Ceremony appearance, and the inevitable complaining about NBC's tape delayed coverage trumped (so far as the network is concerned at least) by remarkably high prime time ratings. And the final medal tables are out. The United States (104 total medals with 46 gold, 29 silver, 29 bronze) led the pack—not a bad showing for a country whose incipient decline or even imminent descent into third-world status is the stuff of current bestsellers, although the dominant showing of the Soviet Union in 1988 at Seoul was quickly followed not just by decline but disappearance. China (88 total, 38 gold, 27 silver, 23 bronze) and Russia (82 total, 24 gold, 26 silver, 32 bronze) followed trailed by surprising Great Britain (65 total, 29 gold, 17 silver, 19 bronze) and Germany (44 total, 11 gold, 19 silver, 14 bronze), now punching well below the weight of its one-time Cold War divided constituent parts.

But the tabulations of the golds and silvers and bronzes by country are certainly not the only—and perhaps not the best—way to look at the outcomes in globalized, "world is flat" 2012. So let's reshuffle the medal standings into some trans-national groupings and look at the results as if Olympic teams were organized this way, not that this will occur any time soon—or ever.

Of course, there is one multi-national entity that no longer competes as such for the simple reason that it no longer exists: the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, which more often than not topped the medal standings once they entered the games in Helsinki in 1952 with the Cyrillic abbreviation "CCCP" emblazoned on their uniforms. But if the constituent elements of the dissolved Soviet empire are toted up in the aggregate and added to Russia's independently strong showing, the medals title would be theirs once again. With 23 golds, 19 silvers and 40 bronzes, for a total of 82 medals tallied by Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Lithuania, Uzbekistan, Armenia, Latvia, Estonia, Tajikistan and Moldova, the once and no longer USSR could claim a total of 164 medals (47 golds, 44 silvers, 73 bronzes) far in front of the United States's total 104, and also edging the US in golds 47 to 46. Not too bad for a region that is habitually portrayed as struggling with political dysfunction and economic instability. But whatever Vladimir Putin's neo-imperial ambitions for his truncated Russia, we won't be seeing any such reassembled sporting empire, whether branded "CCCP" or not.

What of the showings made more "relevant" and up-to-date multi-national entities? The Arab League and African Union (whose memberships somewhat overlap) would not make much of a mark in the medals tables if competing as units, with 33 medals (11 gold, 12 silver, 10 bronze) for the African Union and only 12 (2 gold, 3 silver, 7 bronze) for the Arab League. The 27-member European Union fares much better, with Great Britain, Germany, and France (a notably well balanced 34 total medals, 11 gold, 11 silver, 12 bronze) leading the way to a dominant overall EU haul of 305 medals—almost 150 ahead even of a mythically reconstituted Soviet Union and nearly three times that of the non-mythical United States—92 golds, 104 silvers, 109 bronzes. But before announcing that we are entering into a renewed European Era, limiting the tally to the 10-member Eurozone—which has, of course, carried the cause of a truly united Europe to its greatest extent, and paying a stiff economic price for doing so—reduces that result to 154 total medals (40 gold, 58 silver, 56 bronzes). And it has to be said that the ejection or withdrawal of Greece (2 bronzes) would hardly register on this Olympics balance sheet at all. And ditto Portugal (1 silver).

Finally, what of the "BRICS," the omnipresent (in punditry at least) specter of a Brazil, Russia, India, and China poised to overturn the Euro-centric economic order that has ruled the world ever since Vasco de Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1498? Well, Russia is holding its own and China is moving ahead, but India was a bust in London (6 medals total, 2 silver and 4 bronze) and Brazil (17 medals in all, 3 gold, 5 silver, 9 bronze) was no threat to the established sports world order. With the 2016 summer Olympics in Rio, perhaps a host country bounce will push Brazil up the medals tables. Added to Russia and China, a resurgent Brazil may yet make the BRICS an athletic force—assuming that anything can be expected from India.

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Henry D. Fetter is the author of Taking on the Yankees: Winning and Losing in the Business of Baseball and has written widely about the business and politics of sports. More

Henry D. Fetter is the author of Taking on the Yankees: Winning and Losing in the Business of Baseball (WW Norton). He has written about the business and politics of sports, the American left, Jewish and Israeli history, and legal affairs for publications including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, the Times Literary Supplement, the Journal of Sport History, Israel Affairs, The Public Interest, American Communist History, The National Pastime, and the Encyclopedia of American Jewish History, and his work has appeared in several baseball history anthologies.

His article "Revising the Revisionists: Walter O' Malley, Robert Moses and the End of the Brooklyn Dodgers" was awarded the Kerr History Prize for the best article published in 2008 in the journal New York History; an earlier version of that article was presented at the Columbia University symposium "Robert Moses: New Perspectives on the Master Builder" (March 2007) and received a McFarland-SABR Baseball Research Award. He is the recipient of research grants from the Society for American Baseball Research and the Harry S. Truman Library Institute.

Fetter is a graduate of Harvard Law School and also holds degrees in history from Harvard College and the University of California, Berkeley. A native New Yorker, he attended his first major league baseball game at Brooklyn's Ebbets Field on Memorial Day 1955 and some years later followed the Dodgers to Los Angeles where he has practiced business and entertainment litigation for the past 30 years.
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