Why is it that the ancient Greeks, despite a multitude of competing city-states, only had one truly destructive war? Many scholars have considered this question over the years and the conclusion usually points to a uniquely Greek non-martial way of expressing inter-state conflict – the Olympic Games. Sport, as a metaphor for inter-state conflict, has entered into the modern Olympic Games. Starting with the Berlin games of 1936, and continuing throughout the Cold War, the medal count, as an expression of international power, has been used by propagandists and apologists to show how great their nation or system of government is in relation to all other nations and systems of government. Just suppose that this is true. What does it tell us about the Beijing Games?
It is usual to order the medal table according to the number of Gold Medals a nation has won. On this basis, with 51G, China led the medal table (the US was second with 36G, Russia third with 23G, and Great Britain fourth with 19G). China, however, didn’t win the most medals. With 100 medals (51G, 21S, 28B), China came second to the US in the number of medals won. The US won 110 medals (36G, 38S, 36B). It has been interesting this week to watch how the various pundits have presented these facts.
Those who take a hostile stance towards the US highlight that America has been displaced at the top of the medal table by China. This has been interpreted as a corollary to the rise of China to displace the US as the leading economic force in the world. Equally, those favourable to the US have pointed out that the US won the most medals at Beijing – an indication that America is “still number 1”. Numerically, both camps are right. They are simply using the numbers to advocate their political perspective.
As an exercise, we added the medal awards of the 27 European Union member states to see what we come up with. In total, the EU nations won 275 medals (87G, 101S, 87B). Of course, this exercise is not strictly additive, but it does point to a theme that the Europhiles are keen to highlight. If the EU were to act in a coherent and co-ordinated manner, it would dominate the medal table (and, by extension, the world!). This point does have some merit, if not pressed too hard. The EU is something of an under-stated power that may well come into the light by the time that the Olympic Games reach London in 2012.
In reviewing the whole debate, I was much impressed by an excellent piece by John Mahaffie (see piece), who reminds us that a rock becomes a bear if we are looking for bear, and a bear becomes a rock if we don’t want to see a bear. We can all use the same set of numbers to demonstrate different points according to our subjective interpretation of those numbers. In futures work, one might ask how there can be consensus about the future if we can’t agree what has happened in the past. And that is the whole point of futuring. We are describing a world that has yet to happen. We can all be both right and wrong simultaneously.
A point that is almost Grecian in subtlety. Had the Ancient Greeks discovered futurism, they may well have made it a god. I wonder how Pausanias would have described it.
© The European Futures Observatory 2008
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