On the other hand, the absence of a real sports policy (or its unraveling) can become a decisive handicap. Indeed, how else to explain the poor performance of a country as well-endowed as Switzerland, or as highly populated as Nigeria? And what accounts for South Korea’s exceptional performance, if not a coherent sports policy?
Finally, a country’s level of development, as we have seen, is far from being decisive to Olympic success, especially in the running disciplines. Runners can travel and train individually on the best tracks.
Obviously, however, development does play a significant role. While sports like running are relatively inexpensive, others — including gymnastics, swimming and even more so team games and equestrian events — require significant resources. It is no coincidence that the Caribbean and Africa do not have a presence in these disciplines at the highest levels of competition.
Indeed, of the 10 countries that received the most medals at the London games, all except China and Russia are Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development members. There are no less-developed countries, with the possible exception of Ukraine, in the top 15.
Thus, while economic power is not a prerequisite to Olympic power, multipolarity in sports remains positively correlated with it. Africa received only 3 percent of all medals in London. However, if the continent can sustain its recent economic growth, that number will almost surely rise.
Zaki Laidi is a professor of international relations at Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris (Sciences Po).
Copyright: Project Syndicate