The Olympics–a few thoughts on Global Inequality, Gender, Patriotism, and Multiculturalism

When I first started teaching I taught a class called “Prejudice and Discrimination,” in order to get my students to examine race, class, gender, and sexuality issues (later I added disability) I gave them an assignment where they had to watch a TV program, and analyze it from a sociological perspective. Basically, I wanted them to apply a theory from sociology to the program they chose. It was 2000, and one student did his analysis on the Olympics. He decided to use what I’ll call a functionalist multicultural perspective. In sociology, functionalism is a conservative theoretical view that argues that society is made up of interrelated and interdependent parts, which work together to create stability harmony, and order. Functionalists generally want to minimize change, and they tend to see everything having a functional purpose. The competing theory is conflict theory. Conflict theorists see a society that is driven over competition for scarce resources–in particular they see conflict stemming from the competition between society’s haves and have nots. Since conflict theory is inspired by some insights of Marxism, conflict theorists believe that social change is necessary.

In my student’s view, the Olympics were great because they brought all the people of the world together. Furthermore, everybody was competing on an equal playing field. He also felt that the spirit of the Olympic movement wiped out race, class, gender, and sexuality issues. In other words, the Olympics made all of these things moot, and nobody cared about any of these things when watching the Olympics.

Sarcastically, I asked myself–is this student watching the same Olympics as I am. I suppose when we take a functionalist view, the Olympics is a sample of stability and harmony, but I don’t see how we can watch the Olympics without noticing the haves and have nots of the world. While one can see some functionalist elements at the Olympics; you have to be deliberately obtuse to miss how Olympic competition is just as much about the social inequalities between groups.

Let’s start with gender. If you watched careful, there were a few occasions when I saw events for men labeled in a neutral way–i.e. the basketball finals– but events for women were labeled as women’s events–i.e. the women’s basketball finals. Isn’t it interesting that even though women participate in most sports at the Olympics, the men’s events are still central in most of those sports. I’ve also noticed that some countries have significantly fewer successful women athletes, and that is often related to the limited number of opportunities for women to compete in those countries. Think about those Kenyan and Ethiopian runners–it has only been recent that women in those countries have been recruited and trained to run like their male counterparts. I also couldn’t stand looking at yahoo during the Olympics where butt shots of women’s beach volleyball players were consistently in the top 10. Don’t get me wrong these women were talented, but it was obvious that their skimpy uniforms were part of the reason the networks had them in primetime.

What about Patriotism and ethnocentrism? As a very public sociologist noted in the thread last week, the US media listed the medal count as opposed to the gold medal count. China ran away with the gold medal count, but I guess it makes us look better to note that we won more over all medals. You could also see the bias in coverage. For the most part if the US wasn’t doing good in an event, then the coverage of that event was either non-existent or relegated to a sound bite. I’ve always felt that the Olympics is largely about Patriotism; it’s a way for countries to feel good about themselves and their people, a way to show strength (quite literally). In the 1936 Olympics, Hitler wanted to prove how great the “Aryan” race was, but he was upstaged by the great African American athlete Jesse Owens.  This was the classic example of the political clashes that often occur at the Olympics.  Don’t get me wrong, there are events that symbolize coming together in spite of our differences–this year the Georgian and Russian competitors in the Women’s air pistol certainly would be an example.  But overall, the examples of countries trying to upstage each other or athletes coming to be representatives for the social and political causes of their nations are probably more numerous.  The Olympics are a competition after all.

The other issue that I’m reminded of is global inequality and its connection to immigration.  I was struck by how the US and China dominated the competition, but one thing I noticed in particular is how many top athletes representing the US were born in other countries and, in many cases, competed for those countries in the past.  I noticed a former Chinese ping pong player, a former Kenyan distance runner, and a Trinidadian sprinter.  Under the 1965 immigration Act, these immigrants are given the fast track to citizenship because of their special skills.1  The US obviously benefits, as do many other Western countries.  These athletes are able to leave poor countries and head to wealthier ones.  When we are talking about science and occupations, this is called the brain drain.  Perhaps in sports it should be called the “muscle hustle.” ; )  Wealthy countries siphon off the top athletes from poor countries; moreover, many of the athletes from poor countries train, compete, and live in wealthy nations.  I don’t know how many people noticed how many of the West Indian (such as Trinidadian, Jamaican, Bahamian) sprinters attend college and train in the US.  I’d be curious to know how many of these athletes are able to stay in the US because of their skills.

Now I haven’t even touched on racism in this already long post, so I’ll keep it brief.  Sport is often used as a way to reinforce racial stereotypes.  Rather than connecting the racial make-up of an Olympic sports team to social opportunities, many try to assert biological distinctions between races, ignoring those who defy racial stereotypes and ignoring economic and social factors that result in racial differences.  (Feel free to share your own examples for this one.)

What do you think? How does conflict theory play out at the Olympics?  What ways do you think the Olympics represents a functionalist world view?

  1. This is also applied to scientists, artists, and people in some high demand occupational fields. []
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19 Responses to The Olympics–a few thoughts on Global Inequality, Gender, Patriotism, and Multiculturalism

  1. 1
    lilacsigil says:

    An excellent series of observations, particularly about the female athletes. You may also notice that the more equipment a sport requires (a kayak, a gymnasium, a horse, gloves and bats for a whole team) the more likely it is that only First World countries will participate. Team sports are also much more likely to be First World, though there are African and Central/South American teams in the sports with almost no extraneous equipment, such as soccer, basketball and volleyball. India and Pakistan also have hockey teams, as they have a long tradition of hockey. Fewer swimmers from Third World countries, too – not many pools.

    Australian media calculated that Australian taxpayers paid $16.2 million for each gold medal we won. I am yet to see any research that correlates money spent on elite sports to public benefit in the form of increased access to and participation in sporting activities, or increased fitness. In fact, Britain seems to have improved its elite sports teams at the expense of public participation in non-elite sports.

  2. 2
    vileseagulls says:

    Should we also comment on the Paralympics (noting that you mention disability up the top) – which run alongside (not as part of) the main Olympics, but miss out on pretty much all of the coverage. In New Zealand they weren’t even mentioned, though I can’t comment on coverage in other countries. Furthermore, if they were truly introduced to be “inclusive”, why do they run as a separate event instead of part of the Olympic lineup?

    And, of course, yes to everything you said. Sometimes this sort of event is kind of painful to watch.

  3. 3
    Ampersand says:

    Perhaps in sports it should be called the “muscle hustle.” ; )

    Or the “brawn drawn.” :-)

  4. 4
    Noumena says:

    I’ve seen several versions of tables that rank countries by (gold) medals per capita and per GDP. Here’s a nice one: link. These give a very different perspective on who was successful — on the GDP per total medals list, for example, New Zealand is the highest-ranked `Western’ nation, at #32. The US comes in at #75, and China at #44.

  5. 5
    Deborah says:

    Also note that there are fewer women’s sports; there are still male sports without female equivalents.

    I love watching the Olympics, and I think the medal count is deceptive. More than 90% of athletes go home without a medal; for them it is about something other than winning, and I think, when observed that way, that we get closer to contemplating the Olympic ideal.

    Nonetheless, I cannot help agreeing with you, and I have often observed similar things. Training is expensive; coaches cost money, and wealthier nations find ways of supporting athletics where poorer nations cannot.

    In the U.S., blacks from urban areas become track stars, a relatively inexpensive sport; whites swim and do gymnastics, which are high-end in terms of coaching and equipment.

  6. 6
    Robert says:

    Just ftr, as far back as I can recall the US media has always reported total medal counts. Sometimes they’ve broken it out as well, but they always report the total. I’ve never seen a just-gold-medal count as a recurring statistic.

  7. 7
    David Schraub says:

    I don’t think the “muscle hustle” (or whatever it is) really is the one-way phenom you portray it is. My observation has been almost the opposite — a lot of US athletes who just miss the Olympic team are eagerly signed on by nation’s with which they have ancestral ties (my big sport is boxing, and I know a couple guys who have done this — for example now-world titlist Andre Berto, who is an American who competed for Haiti).

    Libertarians would probably call it a perfect example of comparative advantage, with each country “trading” for athletes in events we’re weak in and giving up surplus athletes in events we’re strong in. So the US is quite willing to take in excess Kenyan runners (Kenya has many to spare, and we have fewer top quality ones), but we’ll send off some of our boxers to Puerto Rico or Haiti, because we have a surplus of talent there. Since once you’re competing in the Olympics there hopefully is no significance to which country you’re competing for in terms of likelihood of success, it makes sense for athletes to try and make whatever team will allow them to compete.

    Of course, big countries still have an advantage in other ways — better training facilities, a larger and more affluent population base which yields more and more varied athletes — but some small countries have been responding by developing a comparative advantage in a few sports (Jamaica in sprinting, anyone?). And Jamaica is particularly interesting — some of their sprinters do train in the US (generally by going to universities here with big track programs), but several have decided that the American training regime is sub-optimal and have elected to stay home and train. So they’re going both ways.

    I’m not normally a classical econ kind of guy, but the Olympics exhibit a lot of qualities of an ideal free trade system. Not entirely, of course, but a fair amount.

  8. 8
    darren says:

    It’s not just the volleyball – why do women athletes wear crop tops and tight high cut shorts (apart from some countries with large Muslim populations) and the men not? It surely isn’t based on performance. I heard that someone had designed a medals table that relates GDP and population to Olympic success. Interesting concept!

  9. 9
    Radfem says:

    I think we’ll get total medal counts emphasized if the U.S. is leading and even more so (vs gold medal counts) if the U.S. isn’t leading the gold medal counts.

    Hmm, watching the games on NBC it’s hard to even be aware that aside from a medal here and there that nations outside those who have permanent membership in the Security Council at the UN were even competing.

  10. 10
    Nikaara says:

    If you think the Summer Olympics are bad in terms of global inequality, just think about the Winter ones! I always feel slightly guilty for enjoying the Winter Olympics since they aren’t really global and to participate in pretty much any winter sport requires a lot of money.

  11. 11
    RonF says:

    the US media listed the medal count as opposed to the gold medal count.

    You make a number of good points, but I don’t see this as a valid one. As far back as I can remember the media have always listed and discussed the entire medal counts. I don’t think there was any particularly different emphasis this time – although obviously there was a lot of discussion on how China was emphasizing it.

    I think that in the next Summer Olympics there’s going to be a lot of discussion both in the U.S. and worldwide about the mechanism that China has set up to find and train athletes. China has decided to use the Olympics to promote their society by putting a large amount of state resources into this process. The U.S. does not and will not do this to anywhere near the same extent. I would not be surprised if China leads the total medal count as well as the gold medal counts next time. Americans will have to do some thinking about that with regards to how they feel about the Olympics.

  12. 12
    staydaddy says:

    First, I tend to disagree with your student about the success of the basic premise of the Olympics and the Olympic movement in general re: level playing field, gender/race equality , etc.
    That said, if you had told me he was asked to critique the US and US media’s perspective on the Olympics, I would agree with his analysis.
    You ask: “is this student watching the same Olympics as I am.”
    Neither of you are watching the Olympics. The show you are watching is a sports news show about the Olympics, half a world away.
    Similarly, watching Faux News’ Shock and Awe’ is not really watching a war, or a bombardment, and the participants actual experience is likely different than what is portrayed on TV, and way different than what you experience when sitting in front of a TV in your living room.
    Your post in general seems to conflate the two (Olympics vs. Olympics coverage) which is an interesting commentary on how the media coverage influences people, even critics. The lens with which any you seek to view and comment on the Olympics is a heavily distorted view peering through a TV screen at events that are spoon-fed with commentary to make them seem connected to life in the watcher’s country.
    You go on to assume that information cherry-picked first by these same media outlets and then by you is going to somehow tell you something about individual participants (ie:brawn drain) or trends.
    Though in a way it does, your supposition draws at best inaccurate conclusions.

  13. 13
    samedifference says:

    What a shame that in a brilliant post, DisAbility is only mentioned in brackets.

  14. 14
    staydaddy says:

    The following is all anecdotal, I realize.
    I know several individuals who have transferred or intended to transfer nationalities who were/are Olympic participants (or intend/intended to be). As pointed out above, most that I know of are transfers down (not up) the pecking (move from better to worse program), and have been motivated by everything from revolutionary politics, simple shortcut career advancement, spousal residency and educational opportunity.This is not a surprise: most of the participants are adults, with full agency, despite the US audiences desire to infantilize the participants.
    These individuals are not uni-dimensional robots. They have careers, families, political aspirations etc, just like university professors. Case in point: a science professor from grad school was an Olympic medalist in a track event. He was also from a small island nation and is now a US citizen. He never competed for the US, but did attend college here. He claimed the reason that he did not seek US citizenship until after he terminated his running career was because he believed in his own running program. For the same reasons, when he made a move to academia, he changed his citizenship as a practical matter. At the time, there was no path to be a high level academic researcher in his field in the small nation he was from, though the research itself would ultimately benefit humans in general.
    A person that I know well immigrated to the US from a country where his sport was a powerhouse. Why? Because he wanted to study engineering, and thought (accurately as it would turn out) that he would be truly able to be a ‘part time’ amateur athlete and participate in the sport without the over-the-top time commitment that he would otherwise have faced.
    Another former acquaintance of mine was fleeing persecution and sought refuge in one country where his sport was non-existant, to return to his native country and participate in a revolution as a political figure. (I have never heard from/of him again)
    There are, of course, immigration for gain stories as well. But to me these stories underscore the difference between how the athletes see their participation, and how it is portrayed by our media outlets.

  15. 15
    Rachel S. says:

    stay daddy said, “Your post in general seems to conflate the two (Olympics vs. Olympics coverage) which is an interesting commentary on how the media coverage influences people, even critics. The lens with which any you seek to view and comment on the Olympics is a heavily distorted view peering through a TV screen at events that are spoon-fed with commentary to make them seem connected to life in the watcher’s country.”

    This is a good point. The assignment itself is a critique of media since that’s the only way most people can access the Olympics; however, the larger issues such as immigration policy can be woven into a discussion of both. I could do a better job of clarifying that.

  16. 16
    lilacsigil says:

    vileseagulls: The Paralympics haven’t been held yet. They start this Saturday. I don’t know what the NZ coverage will be like, but the ABC in Australia will be running them 12 hours a day over its free-to-air and digital channels. Yay!

  17. 17
    staydaddy says:

    vileseagulls: Ideally, one would think , the Paralympics would be integrated into the Olympics. That said, it is difficult to imagine using the same venues to run an additional (the Paralympic events are typically broken into “classes” of disability, thus several races within a single event) simultaneous set of races, without the days for the event officials and security literally being twice as long. It is even more difficult to imagine it being fare, fun or even safe to run an integrated para/non-para event for many of the sports. Currently, for instance, the blind/vision impaired participants compete in an entirely different race from the single leg amputees in the event of road cycling, where vision would be a serious advantage to an individual who is a single leg amputee. The next best thing is probably the consecutive setup that is now the standard.

    Incidentally, in more than one of the winter sports, race days, training camps, coaching and staffing at the administrative level were often shared to some extent ( some years ago). Since participation in the Olympics or Paralympics is merely a 3 week blip every four years, the “normal” course of events was often more integrated. Conveniently, for participants in the B/VI classes, there was frequently a willing non-impaired athlete to team with as a voice guide. I can’t speak for what that may be like now, but I suspect it has not changed.

  18. 18
    Matt Wardman says:

    Sorry – typos corrected.

    I think that relative political stability is a factor in the “advanced country/undeveloped country” difference you mention – one example is what happened to the Ugandan “Elite Programme” after Idi Amin came to power, especially hurdler John Akii Bua.

    That does not (usually) happen in more advanced countries, where there are few political “distractions”.

  19. 19
    samedifference says:

    Ideally, one would think , the Paralympics would be integrated into the Olympics.

    I couldn’t agree more, staydaddy.