Since the end of the Cold War, it has become a quadrennial rite for commentators to suggest that the collapse of the Soviet Union has drained some of the excitement from the Olympics. Without the ideological rivalry between the capitalist US and its Western allies and the communist USSR and East Germany, the argument goes, the good vs. evil narrative that marked earlier games has disappeared and the battle to win the medal count has lost its drama. Such complaints may soon come to an end as China may have replaced Russia as the main challenger to American supremacy, reflecting the differing fate of the two nations.
After their return to the games in 1952, the Soviet Union invested huge state resources into athletics, giving their players Red Army positions as a ruse to pay them without violating the rules of amateurism. The Soviets became a powerhouse in a wide range of sports, ranging from gymnastics to hockey. Indeed, when a U.S. hockey team composed of college players defeated the Russians in the “Miracle on Ice” at the 1980 Winter Games, it was so dramatic because the Soviet squad had previously beaten N.H.L. all-star teams and was probably the best team in the world, amateur or professional. The Russians even progressed in basketball to the point that they literally beat us at our game, becoming the first team to defeat the U.S. in Olympic competition, winning in controversial fashion in 1972 and then unambiguously again in 1988.
And it was not just the Soviet Union that challenged American dominance. East Germany (GDR) also became a player, identifying athletes at an early age and then moving them away from their families to train them. This strategy enabled the GDR to routinely out-medal West Germany and even challenge the U.S. in the medal count. At the 1976 Montreal Summer Olympics, East Germany, a country of only 16 million people, won more total medals than the U.S!
But the GDR’s success came from more than simply strong recruiting and training. Long before Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds used performance-enhancing drugs to rewrite the major league baseball record book, East German state officials pioneered the use of steroids and other drugs to garner a competitive edge. The GDR’s track and swimming stars routinely used drugs as the country’s Mengele-like doctors often gave them dangerous medications without their knowledge. While this resulted in incredible feats in the games and world records that still stand a generation later, it was illegal and many of the athletes developed long-term health problems as a consequence.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, East German’s sports machine gradually fell into disrepair. The prohibitive cost of reunification ended the athletic investments and exposure of the misdeeds of the GDR’s doctors sealed its demise. Today, Germany is a minor athletic power.
The Soviet Union seems to have met a similar fate. The legacy of the USSR helped maintain Russia’s sports empire for some time, as the country only trailed the U.S. 103-92 in medals at the 2004 Athens Games. That margin, however, increased significantly to 110-73 in 2008 (with China second with 100). As of the end of Day 4, Russia has only won 8 medals, as many as Italy and fewer than Japan or France. Despite the oil-fueled boom of the last decade, Russia has declined economically vis-à-vis other major powers and their falling Olympic performance reflects their lower position in the world order.
At the same time, China has boomed since Deng Xiaoping’s implemented market reforms in the late 1970s. After three decades of strong economic growth, the 2008 Beijing Games signaled the country’s arrival on the world stage. Though the U.S. won the total medal count in Beijing, China’s home-field advantage propelled them to a 51-36 victory in gold medals. Even without the traditional boost provided by hosting, a similar dynamic has marked the first week of the London games, with the two nations tied in the overall medal count and China again leading the U.S. in gold medals (after Day 4).
There are other similarities between US vs. China and the older rivalries. Like the Soviet Union between 1947-1991, China is rapidly becoming our primary foreign policy foe. Like East Germany, their success comes with the hint of scandal. The Chinese women’s gymnastics team had to forfeit a bronze medal from the 2000 Sydney Games after it was discovered officials had falsified the ages of some gymnasts to make them old enough to meet rule requirements. At the London Games, drug suspicion has already fallen on a Chinese female swimming star whose performance has improved dramatically.
Of course, there are important differences between the rivalries. Unlike the Soviet Union, China poses no ideological challenge to the U.S. and its allies. While ostensibly still a Communist state, the nation is a relatively prosperous mix of public and private enterprises and a key player in global financial markets. The Chinese Communist Party is no longer the party of Mao Zedong.
It remains to be seen if the new rivalry will ever feature the excitement of the old one. As Bob Costas pointed out during the opening ceremony, the U.S. and China rarely compete directly against each other, as the US and USSR often did. Nevertheless, a generation after the end of the Cold War, a new fight for athletic supremacy is likely underway.