But primacy is not dominance. The United States earned 104 medals, 11 percent of the total; with 46 golds, Americans won 15 percent of all gold medals. Athletes representing 84 other countries won 89 percent of the total medals and 85 percent of the gold. In 1988, only 52 countries earned medals of any kind. Olympic power, like economic, military and diplomatic power, is increasingly diffused. Nonpolarity, not unipolarity, not even multipolarity, defines the 21st century.
And yes, China is clearly on the rise. At the 1988 Seoul Olympics, China won 28 medals, just five of which were gold. Today, a quarter-century later, China came in second to the United States with 88 medals overall, 38 of them gold. This does, however, represent something of a falling-off from four years ago.
The decline could be attributed to China’s loss of home-country advantage, or it might be further evidence that a difficult political and economic transition is sapping the nation’s energy and focus. Economic growth in China is slowing; Olympic results seem to be a lagging indicator. Those arguing for containment of China might want to spend more time reading the sports section and less with op-eds.
Even worse, for many Chinese, the London Olympics were just the latest instance of the world ganging up on them. There was outrage across China over charges that the swimmer Ye Shiwen won her gold with an improbably fast (and much improved) time because of doping; over the disqualification of its badminton team for appearing to throw a match to improve its chances in the next round; and over the judging in gymnastics that awarded one of China’s best athletes silver rather than gold. It is a reminder that nationalism could become more of a force in China if and when popular frustration grows as the economy cools and freedom is curtailed. Thank God the Olympics have nothing to do with politics.
Russia did extremely well by coming in third overall and fourth in gold, especially when you consider that it is a country of 143 million people, less than half the population of the United States and only 11 percent of China’s. For what it is worth, if you combine Russia’s tally with that of Ukraine, Kazakhstan and the other former Soviet republics, the old U.S.S.R. would have won the most medals and nearly equaled the United States in gold. This is more evidence that we are fortunate the Cold War ended when it did.