The Sochi Winter Olympic Games were undeniably fraught, at the start, with controversy. Despite all of the initial hubbub—the outrageous $51 billion cost, the police force (an equally startling 40-some-thousand law enforcement personnel), the homophobic overtones, the dogs, the toilets and the fifth Olympic ring that failed to open during the Opening Ceremony—once the events got underway, the Sochi Olympics seemed to go off without a hitch.
Certainly, the media lodging left some comfort to be desired, but the athlete accommodation was largely problem-free. Who knows, maybe Sochi did have to scramble to get the press quarters together, or maybe Putin did it on purpose. After all, he’s a leader that has never had an affinity for journalists of any type or nationality for that matter . It is also not hard to imagine that the American press’ immediate reactions to Sochi and Russia as a whole could have been exacerbated by lingering Cold War paranoia and animosity toward the nation that has been the United State’s sworn enemy since 1945.
None of that matters now. The final medal count for the Winter Olympics is in. Russia, who had the home turf advantage, came away with the highest count, bringing in 33 total medals, 13 of which were gold—the most for any country participating in the Games.
The United States came in second with 28 total medals, and Norway came in third place with 26. Russia more or less won the Olympic medal contest, which might be a new concept for an event that claims to celebrate individuals before nations.
For the big, competitive countries, both the winter and summer games have become about the medal count and exposure more than the individual achievements of the athletes who win medals. What was once a celebration of amateurism is now outright nationalism and consumerism, a money grab for TV networks and host cities and nations — and I am fine with it.
There’s an argument to be made that the Olympics should be held in the same place every four years: the Summer Games in Greece, and the Winter Games in the Alps, perhaps. If the venue didn’t change, maybe the financial burden put on host nations and cities could be minimized.
How serious the financial implications can be for some cities can’t be understated, either. Lake Placid spent so much money on the Winter Olympics in 1980 that the town actually needed the New York State Legislature to give it a bailout so it could pay its creditors. Conversely, some say that the most recent Summer Games in London was more an attempt to renovate the eastern end of the city than to create effective Olympic infrastructure. But the ultra-costly traveling circus that is the Olympic Games is part of what makes it such a special event.
Cities and countries wouldn’t be throwing their names in the ring to host and shelling out millions and now billions of dollars on stadiums, transportation, lodging and otherwise if the Olympics weren’t a marquee affair that brought world-wide tourism, visibility and prestige. Empty, unused stadiums may remain, taking up space and tax dollars in post-Olympic cities, but the influx of money that makes airports, public transportation and accommodation better can encourage tourism for years to come.
The Olympics expose cities and countries to the world in a way that otherwise is impossible. The Beijing Opening Ceremony in 2008 was one of the most overpowering, awe-inspiring performances ever televised. It brought the world to China, and China to the world in one fell swoop. There is a great sense of pride, showing off one’s country to the millions of viewers tuning in across the globe. If we as viewers were just interested in watching individuals compete for themselves, we would watch the pro skiing or track circuits. Competing for one’s country is different, more interesting to watch.
Rooting for national glory above individual glory during the Olympics is not slovenly or ignorant, nor does it have anything to do with proving the merits of American capitalism or democracy. It is collective fun, and, really, one of the only ways to be fervently nationalistic peacefully. In fact, athletics are the closest the world gets to pure meritocracy. It is impossible to become a professional or Olympic-caliber athlete through people you know, family connections, your wife, husband, sister or acquaintances.
Never is that more apparent than on the Olympic stage, when the world gets together to compete. Sure, there is a correlation between the national medal count and economic power, but no one country can win all the medals. The medal count is a funny metric, but it’s a concrete one, one from which it is possible to derive healthy national pride.