London 2012: Data Shows the U.S. Is Not the Dominant Team in the Olympics

Yahoo Sports blogger Martin Rogers wrote a post on July 14 analyzing the summer Olympic events in which the United States has never medalled. Though the primary point of the story is to analyze why the U.S. never even won a bronze in table tennis, badminton, and handball, it opened with a questionable claim:

"The dominance of the United States for much of modern Olympic Games history has continued unabated, with Americans enjoying some level of success in virtually every sporting discipline."

Over the course of Olympic history, it is at best a stretch to say that the U.S. has been dominant. While American delegations enjoyed consistent — but not uninterrupted — success up to and including the 1948 games, we must consider the historical context.

Without easy travel or the prestige of the recent Olympic games, few nations sent full-strength or complete delegations in the way that they do now. It is unsurprising then that host nations, including the U.S., topped the medal tally — by number of gold medals — in 1900, 1904, 1908, 1932, and 1936.

In the remaining years — 1896, 1912, 1920, 1924, 1928, and 1948 — the U.S. did top the medal tally. Taking historical circumstances into consideration — of America’s turn of the century wealth, World War I, and World War II — these results aren’t surprising. However, results before the 1952 games should not enter into the equation because the nature of the Olympics was so different to today’s games.

Just as importantly, the Soviet Union did not compete before 1952. (The Russian Empire did compete in 1900, 1908, and 1912.) In the post-1948 era of the Olympics — when participating nations began to take the games more seriously and the games’ prestige increased drastically — the U.S. cannot reasonably be described as dominant. American delegations topped the medal tally in 1952, 1964 and 1968; but came second to the USSR in 1956, 1960, and 1972; and third to the USSR and East Germany in 1976 and 1988. In 1992, the mixed team of 12 former Soviet Republics once again beat the U.S. in the medal tally. The 1980 and 1984 games provide no basis for comparison as the U.S. and USSR boycotted each other’s games.

Looking at the overall picture, the U.S. far exceeds the USSR and East Germany in overall medals and gold medals, but it also fielded teams more often. If we take into consideration how often these teams competed, the numbers between the U.S., USSR, and East Germany become comparable.

While knowledge of the systematic and state sponsored use of performance-enhancing drugs put an unknown number of Soviet and especially East German medals into question, the extent of doping is still unknown. Complicating matters are similar allegations in American sports. With the uncertainty that surrounds the entire episode, it is difficult to draw any conclusions without further information.

After the fall of the USSR, the case for U.S. dominance gains some traction. The U.S. did top the medal tally in 1996, 2000, and 2004, but if that was a case for dominance, it has not gone “unabated.” China’s rise in the medal tally in 2008 make a case for abatement, and surely it will seek to cement its case in London.

That first clause qualifies its point with the vague phrase “much of modern Olympics games history,” but the phrasing is worryingly simplistic — possibly to the point of being false.

In a previous tongue-in-cheek post, I raised my objections to the excessive nationalism that tends to skew interpretations of statistics whenever the Olympic flame is lit. Without adequate context, coverage of the Olympic games tends to throw up a veneer of using objective statistics in order to inflate arbitrary claims of national superiority.

While the U.S. has achieved a great level of Olympic success, to characterize it as dominance seems excessive. Consider yet another fact: the U.S. has won 929 gold medals of a total of 4,505 since 1896, or roughly 20% — which is quite impressive. There are 302 events in London this year, to match its historical record, the U.S. would need 60 gold medals. With the same number of events in Beijing, the U.S. won 36 gold medals. Will London further substantiate the argument that the U.S. is in decline?