The modern Olympics Games is 130 years old. Fourteen countries participated in the first revival of those games in Greece in 1896, where 11 of the total of 14 participating countries were European and three, Australia, Chile and the United States, made up the balance. At the end of the nineteen century as today national identity played a significant role.
National identity at the end of the 19th though was perceived differently from what we perceive it today. Then many countries saw their global empires as part of their national identity. The First, and then the Second World War saw a challenge to those empires, and naturally, over time a redefinition of nationhood began to evolve. When one compares the 14 countries that first participated in 1896 Olympics and the 209 countries that competed in Rio over the last few weeks, it reflects a dramatic change in our sense of nationhood over the last century.
Not only has there been an increased acknowledgement of what constitutes a nation and its legitimate aspirations, which in the past was often glossed over or denied, but there has also been a large change in the way nations participate. After the First World War, the formation of the League of Nation saw 63 countries essentially forged definitions of nationhood. Currently there are 193 countries represented at U.N. that participate and have a voice.
One wonders about the political, social and economic changes since the late 19th century which have involved into an increasing representative group of global athletes. Olympic traditions have necessarily grown over that time especially in countries whose participation began more recently.
When one looks at the countries that carried the bulk of the medals at Rio (say the first 10 countries), it is evident that their historical participation has forged a long Olympic tradition except for China which only first participated in 1980. And yet there are interesting anomalies. India first participated in the 1900 Olympics with a single athlete. Its field hockey team dominated the Olympics between 1929 and 1980 with 12 gold medals. It has a population only second to China and has a significant bulk of the world’s global GDP and yet it has appeared non-competitive in most Olympic events for many years. It is unclear whether culture or other social forces has impacted that statistic.
And then there are small countries like Kenya and Jamaica, who are bested by many countries in population size and national GDP, who have developed superior athletes in long distance track and marathon events, in Kenya’s case, and in Jamaica in short distance sprints . In both of these countries, there is a tradition started and continued by former athletes, which have had a significant social and regional impact on cohorts of younger athletes.
For a few weeks the talents and the hard work of athletes were on display in Rio. After the Olympics these athletes will turn away from the bright lights and media adulation to live mostly in global obscurity in countries and homes significantly different from each other in terms of language, culture and social engagements. It was an inspiration to have known them from a distance.