Surely, when Baron Pierre de Coubertin first revived the Olympic Games, no one dreamed that countries would keep count – even unofficially – of the medals won by their athletes.
When I first attended the Olympics in Montreal in 1976, I was startled to see an enormous scoreboard on the wall of the Olympic Village building that housed the mighty Soviet team. Two of my acquaintances from the Central Committee of the Komsomol youth organization attended the board day and night, chalking up more and more medals taken by the home team, and even recording all 4th, 5th or 6th place showings by Soviet athletes. As I recall, this did not go unnoticed by the International Olympic Committee, which remarked that there was no such thing as national scorekeeping at the games. But the Soviets had their own reckoning. In those days the USSR was a regular victor in both the summer and winter competitions, often defeating its perennial opponent, if not to say enemy, the United States.
But here’s the surprise: with the collapse of the Soviet Union, national scorekeeping was suddenly universally adopted, even by countries not distinguished for their athletic programs. Today, the tally looms over countless governments. Olympic victories have come to be an indicator of a country’s competitiveness and progress. A nation that wins many medals sees itself as much as a political as an athletic power.
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