LeadershipMisc Thoughts

Yes, the US “Won” the Winter Olympics

Apolo Ohno - Flag

37 medals, count ‘em. More than the US has ever won in the Winter Olympics (the previous US record was 34 in 2002 in Salt Lake); the first time the country has won the medal count since 1932 in Lake Placid; and more medals than any other country in the history of the event (Germany won 36, also in 2002). It’s sports. There are winners and losers. That’s the way it works. The US won. Celebrate it, America, you deserve to.

Americans are a funny bunch. For the most part, we want to obnoxiously demonstrate our leadership and strength, but in the end, we spend more time questioning and even regretting our exercise of the same than we do celebrating our success – any success. It seems that as a nation, we’re stuck between the polar extremes of being the ugly Americans and being the most stoic, self-deprecating, politically correct, wussiest humans to walk the planet.

The litany of commentary – both print and digital – discounting the performance of the US Olympic Team at the 2010  Winter Olympics is shocking and disappointing to me. Why is the US so afraid of admitting to itself that it won these Games? It’s not like we would be declaring world domination in sports or anything like that. The timers reported and the judges declared that the American athletes were better in more of the individual events than any other country during the 2010 Winter Olympics. Isn’t that simply the fact?

Speaking of facts . . . for those in the US who feel the need to downplay the US victory, here’s an arrow for your quiver.  According to nationmaster.com, little Norway has kicked our ass in the Winter Olympics, as well as everyone else’s, during the history of the Winter event. The US isn’t close to being the all-time leader in the Games. Now do you feel like you can celebrate a little more? We’re not dominant. In fact, for most of the years that the Winter Olympics have run, the US medal count was only in the single digits.

All-Time Winter Olympic Medals by Country - Source-Nationmaster.com

I think the problem here is that we believe that the correct behavior for the world leader is one of introspection and humility. We’re afraid that if we show hubris, other countries will look down on us as not acting appropriately or as a leader should. While I question whether or not anyone should look at things that way and, for the most part, don’t really support it, I certainly understand the position and concern. I believe, however, that this neglects an internal need for certain behaviors. A need that is stronger now than it has been in over a century in this country.

Americans need to celebrate who we are and what we do. Most Americans barely know how the country leads in many scientific endeavors, in entrepreneurialism, in giving aide to foreign countries. These, of course, are the important things to celebrate, but they’re not visible. For some reason, the governing bodies of the US choose not to make a big deal of them – to make Americans feel proud of what they do. Any CEO worth his or her salt knows the value of helping their employees feel great about what they do. The tangible and intangible benefits are profound. The same thing needs to be done for the citizens of a country.

While sports are clearly less noble than other endeavors, they are visible to all and almost always black and white in terms of success and failure. They are a great tool for creating and celebrating success, especially when the stage is a worldwide one. We should use this year’s victory in the Olympics as a platform to declare success for Americans – admittedly, a minor one – to help us feel good about a real achievement. This is about celebrating within the country, not about bragging outside of it.

Before you blow me off here, let me give you two thoughts. We seemed to have no trouble accepting that the success in this year’s Super Bowl of the New Orleans Saints would be a good thing for the city of New Orleans, right? That one’s easy. No one is afraid of pissing off Indianapolis (the Indianapolis Colts lost in teh Super Bowl) residents by celebrating the success of another city in sports. Is there a reason that winning the Olympics is any different? And to those who are fixated on the idea that countries shouldn’t celebrate the success of sports teams, I ask you to look at the World Cup (soccer). If you want to see patriotic declarations of success that dwarf anything America could possible demonstrate, check out how European and South American countries celebrate when they beat other countries in World Cup games. Whew!

Sorry, I know this is a rant and a long one at that, but while I’m on a roll here, I’d like to rebut various arguments discounting America’s victory at the 2010 Olympic Games.

  • While the US won the most medals, it did not win the most gold medals and gold medals are what really count. First, let me congratulate the Canadians who, with 14 gold medals, dominated the top tier of the podium more often than any other country. Second, the number of golds is not a good indicator of the best team at the Olympics, it is most often a better indicator of the team with the greatest genetic anomalies, seriously. If you look at medal counts over the vast majority of previous Olympics, it’s easy to see that a single athlete is the cause of a high number of gold medal wins. Think Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt in the last summer Olympics. It’s simply not a good indicator of team performance.
  • The US only wins because of events created since 1990. Yes, it’s true that Americans have tended to be better at the higher risk sports added to the Games since the early 90’s. At least up until this winter’s Games. In this year’s games, Australians, Chinese, German, Norwegian, Belarus and certainly Canadian athletes often outperformed the Americans. In fact, the reason the Americans won the Olympics is more because of their performance in classic alpine events and even in some nordic events that have been in the games from the beginning.
  • The US does better in judged events (figure skating, half-pipe, freestyle skiing, etc.) than it does in strictly timed events (slolom, super-G, speed skating, etc.). Statistically this has been true, historically. Most US medals in the past have been in skating and most of those in figure skating. But what does this statement imply – that judged events are somehow invalid and shouldn’t be part of the Olympics? Should style and athleticism not be part of the Olympics? Whatever your take on that question, it is part of the Games. The fact that the US wins its fair share of those events shouldn’t discount the country’s overall achievement.
  • The US Olympic team is larger than most other teams and has an unfair advantage. If a country sends a huge number of non-competitive athletes, does it affect the number of medals it gets? There is almost no effect. One country having more athletes does not keep another country from having more. A country enters its best athletes in an event. If the country doesn’t have a competitive entry, fewer athletes are entered. Simple as that. There is no penalty for having either more qualified athletes or more unqualified ones, it just makes sense to only bring qualified ones and the US has more than many countries. The only potential advantage for a country with more athletes is that when an injury occurs, they are more likely to still be in a position to take a medal in an event. That only happens, of course, of when the replacement athlete is qualified enough to win.

I could go on and on. They’re simply reasons to take a victory and discount it to make it modestly meaningless. We don’t have to be assholes to celebrate and there is huge upside to celebrating successes, even ones this trivial.

Just one final thought. For those of you still desperate to somehow discredit the US victory at the Olympics here’s a reasonable, IMO, way of doing it. One can argue that the only appropriate measure of success at the Games is the number of medals won per capita – that is, the number of medals won in relation to the number of citizens of the country winning them. Let’s face it, at the level of athleticism required to be the world’s best in any sport, the size of the genetic pool is really a factor. With that in mind and, again according to nationmaster.com, Liechtenstein is far more successful at the Winter Olympics over time than any other nation on the planet. The US falls to 17th place. There you go. We suck after all.

 Per Capita Winter Olympic Medals - Source-Nationmaster.com


  1. Well written, highly impassioned post. With that said, I disagree with your premise.

    To somehow walk away from the Winter Olympics with a “mightier than thou” attitude seems a bit cowardly. I say this because, it seems the overall sentiment going into this year's olympics was an underwhelming sense of apathy. Likely this was for two reasons: 1) it's the winter olympics (for most Americans, the red-headed step child of the two international competitions) and 2) we weren't predicted to finish amongst the top three nations (which probably contributes in large part to reason 1 to some degree). It's a normal human trait to dissociate yourself in preparation to avoiding disappointment (I've been a Cubs fan my entire life, I know this all too well). This is exactly how Americans invested themselves in the winter games. Sure people will turn on their TV to watch that night's event, but have you ever seen an American get in a fight with someone from Finland over who has the superior ice dancing team? If so, put that on YouTube, please.

    By not putting much emphasis going into the games, you're not allowed to walk away with this extreme, celebratory, pride that you argue we shouldn't feel any shame for. My analogy to this would be Chicago riotting after the Fire won the MLS trophy (whatever it's called). The more you put in, the more you're allowed to take out. That's how it works with sports. It's not any different for the Olympics. Had we had a mediocre showing, which is what many projections had us for, I sincerely doubt American's would be too distraught. We would have rationalized. We would have downplayed. We probably wouldn't really even acknowledge it.

    Now that we have had a better than anticipated showing, we should feel some sense of joy, but within reason of the pre-Olympic anticipation.

    P.S. By the way, you thought that your post was a rant…your commenters are way worse;)

  2. Will,

    I may be dating myself, but it is my vague recollection that back in the day when we seemed to be competing against the USSR, the news always seemed to pay more attention to the Gold Medal count, not so much the overall medal count. This was back when ABC Sports did the Olympics. I have hated the day that NBC got the franchise, I think they do a totally lousy job, I lost nearly complete interest ever since they started doing the Olympics (oh that's a different rant). Anyway, it seems to me that the news highlights whichever plays best to the audience. Let's face it, in US Sports calculus there is the Gold Medal and there is zilch, no one cares how many times a team or athelete has been to the Super Bowl, World Series, Stanley Cup, Indy 500 (I could go on). It's binary First/Last. So the Colts got a Silver medal in the Super Bowl, nah, ya see what I mean? Or to put it another way, The Patriots have been to the Super Bowl 6 times won 3 lost 3, by Olympics calculus this is better than the 49er's measley 5 appearances and 5 wins. (Sorry Will, I just had to do that :-))

    So, nope Canada kicked butt, yeah for them I say, oh and they did it with a populaton of what ? 1/9 of ours?

    John Bower

  3. Zach,

    I hadn't thought about that position – you don't deserve to take credit if
    you weren't emotionally attachment a priori. I guess I can't disagree with
    it. Valid point. For my part, I had read up on many of the American
    Olympians beforehand and felt fairly attached, but I'm certainly in the
    minority. Come to think of it, I'm a guy who roots for the home team when
    Nobel Prizes are given out each year, counting the number of medals given to
    American scientists, economists, writers, mathematicians, etc compared to
    other countries (I know, I should seek professional help). Although I'm not
    invested in those awards before hand, I feel good about results when they go
    “our” way and bad about them other countries are recognized.

    I guess I feel like you have to start somewhere. If the government talked
    about the games beforehand, then celebrated afterwards – even a third place
    finish, many people would recognize it as a bigger deal and celebrate it. To
    me, this is the value in doing well – when everyone can share in success
    (realizing your a Cubs fan, even shared failure is, in fact, shared and
    binding. Keep in mind that I was a Red Sox fan way before 2004 – I totally

    Unlike other countries with national sports policies and goals, the US is
    haphazard. I gotta think that Russia got behind Medvedev when he blew up
    about his country's poor Olympic performance (http://nyti.ms/dwWkfv). Even
    failure can bring people together. In the US, though, we don't even pull
    together with success.

  4. John,

    Ah, the good ol' days when the Olympics were a proxy for all out war. I
    miss 'em 🙂 Yeah, in those days, the gold was what mattered because it was
    often a race between two countries. Even if Eastern European and Soviet
    doping were rampant and clouds all those historical results. I agree with
    that part. It's not really the same today, though. Although I have to think
    that China, which has a national sports policy and five-year plan is
    thinking that way.

    Where I disagree is in the comparison to sports that implicit involve only
    two player or teams. Most Olympic sports have many people or teams entering
    the finals (clearly, hockey, basketball, softball don't fit this, but they
    are in the minority). There is no silver or bronze in those competitions, so
    they have to be all or nothing. Second place=last place. When you have 6
    people in a final, it's totally reasonable to rank the top of the group. I
    believe Olympic athletes fully believe in this. While they want the gold,
    they think silver and bronze remains a major achievement.

    BTW, your jab about the 49ers is reasonable, but is a perfect example of how
    a freakishly good player can bias things, even in team sports. In the 49ers
    case, they had back to back freakishly good quarterbacks . . . and a great
    coach and great wide receivers and great defense . . . 🙂

  5. This is not impressive, one lousy year. The problem with American sports is that they are made up of mostly untalented spoiled brats while our REAL talent is whithering away. Other countries have government programs THAT RECOGNIZE TALENT very young. America likes to MAKE MONEY off of sports training, so MANY talented young Americans never get recognized. If America wants to get with the program, start actually recognizing talent and get rid of your spoiled “athletes.”

    1. Skierx,

      Hard to disagree with your point to some extent. American athletes are actually more equivalent to movie and music stars than they are to the classic Greek/Roman hero that they once were. With that, their hubris is maintained by the pedestal that their fans put them on. Not an excuse, just an explanation.

      I don’t know if having a national program to recognize and develop athletes is the right thing to do. It might be. I agree that there should be an avenue for training of potential athletic stars that has broad access to those that are willing to put in the effort. That said, the collegiate programs in the US do a pretty good job of it.

      I totally agree that some of the prima donna mentality of athletic stars is abhorrent and contributes to some level of failure in the clutch. I don’t know how it relates to the lack of recognition of talent at any level, though.

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