International Status-Seeking and the Olympics

(Centennial Olympic Park, Atlanta GA)

We are five days into the 2020 Summer Olympics and we have already seen some tremendous highs and crushing lows. Despite all of the problematic elements of the Olympics (and there are many) I am an unabashed and unrelenting fan. The Olympics, being an international event, are also have important for international relations. the Olympics, and international sporting events more generally, often serve a sites of diplomacy for many countries. The Olympics are also international status-seeking opportunities for countries. Hosting the Olympics is seen as boosting the prestige and status of the host city and correspondingly the host country (although to be certain hosting the Olympics is often and economic boondoggle). Additionally, winning medals is seen as a status enhancing prospect for many countries to such an extent that many of them spend tremendous amounts of money into developing their Olympic athletes.

International relations scholars have studied some of the status enhancing aspects of winning Olympic medals and found it to be a valid policy pursued by status conscious states. J. Patrick Rhamey Jr and Bryan Early in Going fo the gold: Status-seeking behavior and Olympic performance find that:

An increase of slightly more than 3% in a state’s medal share from one Olympics to the next, all else being equal, results in an increase of approximately one diplomatic contact at the ambassadorial level

Rhamey Jr and Early measure status increase by diplomatic contact soaring country moving up the international status ranking would have more diplomatic contacts and one moving down would have less. There finding is that states that increase their medal share from the previous Olympics find and slight increase in diplomatic contact the next year after the Olympics. Although the effect is not large it is still evidence that achieving above ones station in the Olympics can enhance that state’s international prestige.

Of course winning Olympic medals is not the only way for states to enhance their status. A team out of the University of Arizona published a response of sorts to Rhamey Jr and Early titled Going for the Gold versus Distributing the Green: Foreign Policy Substitutability and Complementarity in Status Enhancement Strategies. In this piece the authors note that policies states pursue are not done so in a vacuum so they try to see the relative status value of Olympic medals compared to another status enhancing activity – foreign aid. They find:

The results for Olympic medal performance indicate that a state increasing its medal count by one percent of the total medals available would result in a 1.4 percent increase in status . . .Thus, if a state were to increase its medal performance by an average of 7.6 medals, this would then result in the addition of approximately two new ambassadors in 1975 and approximately 2.5 new ambassadors in 2010.

However in comparison to the status enhancing aspects of bilateral aid, going for the Gold might not be so worth it:

All other things being equal, in order to have the same effect on status attribution in 2010 with Olympic performance as with becoming a bilateral donor in 2005, a state would have to generate 26.5 medals in the 2008 Olympic Summer Games. . . As the choice of becoming an aid donor appears to be far less difficult than winning 27 medals, the policy of becoming an aid donor is both substitutable for investing in Olympic performance and may be an easier strategy for generating substantial additional status.

Going for the Gold may not be totally worth it for countries trying to enhance their international status but I hope all of them keep trying so I can keep watching

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