The United States is favored to win the most medals of any country in the 2012 London Olympics, continuing a long tradition of dominance in the Summer Olympics. A survey of all the summer Olympics shows that the United States consistently finishes in the top three, and has the most first-place medal count finishes of any country in the world. Following 1896, when the United States finished second to Greece, Americans would dominate most of the 20th century, routinely doubling the medal count of the second place nation. With the exception of a few Olympics, when Germany, the Soviet Union, and most recently China, rose to prominence, the Summer Olympics have been a time for Americans to truthfully proclaim, “We’re number one!”
The real question is: What explains this tradition of American Olympic excellence over the years? Going strictly by the numbers, China and India should win the most medals since they have the largest populations in the world. Both China and India have over four times as many potential Olympians to choose from, which theoretically should give them an advantage. China did win the most gold medals in 2008, but the United States won the overall medal count that year by ten. This year, the United States is projected to match China’s gold medal count, while also winning the overall medal count. India only won three medals in 2008 and is not projected to win many more in 2012, proving that it takes much more than a large population to succeed in the Olympics.
Some may attribute the American success in the Olympic games to the American spirit or divine providence. There is something to be said for individualism and the “hard working” spirit of the America people, but these traits alone cannot explain our summer Olympic dominance. Americans are not the only “hard working” people on earth. Other countries, most recently China, certainly exhibit a “hard working” spirit as well. Individualism was not a valued trait of China, the Soviet Union, and East Germany when they managed to beat the United States in a few Olympics.
What really explains American dominance over time is our immigration policy. Watching the London Olympics Opening Ceremony, one could not help but notice that the United States had perhaps the most diverse Olympic field of all. Many European, Asian, or African countries have Olympians who are made up almost solely of one race and ethnicity.
The Olympic field of each country does not occur randomly. Most countries have had a much more restrictive immigration policy than the United States, and therefore kept their population less diverse than ours.
The United States began as a country of mostly European settlers. Tragically, many Africans were then brought here against their will to work on the cash crops, like tobacco, that helped make our country so wealthy. While there are some exceptions, the 19th and early 20th centuries were made up mostly of an “open door” immigration policy in America. Europeans, Asians, Latinos, and Africans flooded the country without the need to apply for visas, or cross a heavily guarded fence. Eventually, the mix of all these different races became known as the “melting pot”, or the “salad bowl,” depending on one’s preferred analogy.
This diversity, created through our immigration policy, gives the United States a unique advantage on nearly every other country in the world. In 1936 while Germany was trumpeting racial purity and keeping their best Jewish athletes from competing, America was sending Jesse Owens out to win four gold medals. Germany did win more overall medals that year, but American diversity better stood the test of time.
The United States can take from every gene pool to select their Olympic athletes, and we clearly do. The women’s gymnastics team is made of three athletes of European descent, one African-American, and one gymnast of “mixed race” whose ethnicity is black, Japanese, Filipina, and Puerto Rican. As interracial marriage continues to grow in the United States, increasingly we will not be able to identify the ethnicity of many American Olympians, like swimmer Anthony Ervin, who is African American/American Indian/Jewish, or in other words, “American.”
This idea is worth remembering as Americans consider harsher immigration laws in the face of challenging economic times. Our relatively open immigration policy has made us number one in the Summer Olympics, and it certainly has helped to make our economy number one.