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The USA and the Olympics

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Even if you aren't American, if you watched the Olympics in London this summer you probably noticed that the United States came home with a ridiculous amount of medals. With 46 gold, 29 silver, and 29 bronze, we earned a total of 104 in all. That's 17 more than China, who in Beijing four years ago was the nation that came out on top.

Curious as to how we pulled off this massive victory, I poked around the internet (and my own brain; as an American, I'm my own cultural resource) to find the answer. This article on Slate shed a little light on the subject and I'd like to post a summary along with my thoughts, because I find it pretty interesting and a good cultural topic to discuss!

Basically, this year the USA dominated in two of the biggest Olympic events: Swimming and Track & Field. 

In the article I just linked, there's a quote that I thought summarizes things perfectly. It's referring to our success in Track & Field, or athletics, events. 

"As long as the NBA and the NFL exist, American youth will spend their childhoods trying to run really fast, jump really high, and throw things really far."

That's so true. Growing up in the United States, rarely does one go without at least one friend who defines themselves in terms of soccer, volleyball, softball, baseball, football, or one of the many other sports that our mostly suburban landscape supports. Athletics seem to be a part of our national character. But, I'll talk about that a little later.

In the Olympics, there are 34 Swimming events, and we took a medal in 27 of them. Our success in the pool is insane. Aside from the fact that our team boasts a repertoire of incredibly talented swimmers like Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte, Rebecca Soni, and Missy Franklin, it's important to note that in the United States it's extremely easy to enter the swimming world. Private clubs abound, and colleges often feature top training programs, which produce elite swimmers ready for the world stage at the Olympics. 

USA Swimming, the organization that oversees the sport in our country, is also well-funded and well-organized: to sweeten the deal for any hesitant athletes, they offer swimmers $75,000 per gold medal, with a $50,000 bonus if a world record is broken. 

Of course, as an extremely well-off nation, we can afford to train and reward athletes like that. In fact, our status as a wealthy and highly populated nation is one of the biggest reasons why we do so well on the Olympic stage. We simply have more families with the resources to train gold-standard athletes.

We also have a spark of competitiveness ingrained in us. I mentioned earlier that athletics are essentially a part of our national character, just like an affinity for bald eagles, freedom, and terrible reality shows. But, we didn't exactly come over on the Mayflower looking for meadows to play football in, did we? 

After digging through the perilous depths of my Gmail inbox, I found an email sent to me by Allen Evans at the YES Abroad office as a part of my pre-departure homework. In it is a list of 'ugly American' traits and a few of the traits listed point directly to sports.

Live 'individualism': "According to a study of 40 countries by Dutch 
sociologist Geert Hofstede, we are the most individualistic culture in the world. This value can be seen in 
our emphasis on individual accountability and singling out a specific person for recognition and reward." 

There are not a lot of ways better than sports to find a person to single out for their dedication and talent. Therefore, sports are a perfect expression of our culture in the USA. (Little note: 'culture', as we learned about it in the DC orientation, is basically an expression of a group of people's values.) In the US, we value individualism and hard work. We also love the thrill of competition, the chance to tell a story of an underdog who came out on top: to look at someone's life, see all the work they put into something and the challenges they overcame, and root them on. 

So, it's a unique mix of inherent wealth, cultural perceptions, and the structure of the Olympics which allowed the USA to win 104 medals this year. Before I bothered to look anything up, I just sort of thought that we like to win a lot, so naturally we just bred more winning athletes. That's kind of true, but mostly it's just an assumption based on shallow cultural perceptions and my own mind trying to fill in the blanks. 

Kind of goes to show that when you dig around a little, a mindless question can provoke a thoughtful cultural discussion and all kinds of cool new discoveries. There's always more to learn, even it's about something you think you know inside and out, like your own culture. The urge to learn more and explore deeper is something I hope to take with me, and develop further, when I get to Indonesia.

Also, as a treat to everyone who stuck with me during this little cultural analysis, please enjoy this spam of Olympic athlete eye candy. I didn't refer to Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte, and Nathan Adrian in my other post just because I like their swimming, after all. ;) Until I get my next post done, Eid Mubarak to all my Muslim readers and see you next time!

Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps
Also Phelps and Lochte... being charming.
It's a Phelps!
Aaaand a Lochte!

Nathan Adrian!
Fun fact: he's 50% Chinese and 2000% adorable.
And finally.... God Bless America.

1 comment

  1. The last picture and caption... just... YES.

    But I gotta say, that Daley guy from Great Britain... :D



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I'm Sara, the freckled bule, one out of eight of the coolest people in the world. I spent a year in Indonesia as a KL/YES Abroad student but now I live in Boise, Idaho. Welcome to my bloggity blog.


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