Washington – While the Olympic Games were wrapping up in Tokyo, I was actually in Washington visiting with old friends.
It was my first visit to the U.S. capital since June of 2019. And despite the many things that were happening across the country at the time: COVID-19 cases were spiking again, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo resigned and the Senate passed a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, the most discussed topic among our group was the number of gold medals the U.S. Olympic team was winning. America at the time was behind China in the gold medal tally.
My friend told me he was not happy with the number of U.S. gold medals. I said, “Why are you so obsessed with the number of medals? China won 35 and the U.S. 34. It is just a one gold medal difference, isn’t it? It hardly makes much difference to me.”
Apparently as a point of pride, he noted that the total number of medals the U.S. had won as of Saturday was far more than China’s, even if the U.S. was behind in the gold medal count. I thought at that time that he was just sharing his personal feelings.
A few hours later, however, I found out how mistaken I was. I was watching a Fox News program in which the commentators echoed my friend’s views in a more nationalistic manner. That was when I realized that they were not just his personal feelings but rather a national sentiment shared among many Americans vis-a-vis China.
No wonder, on Aug. 8, Forbes Magazine carried an article titled “Tokyo Olympics: U.S. Tops Final Medal Count, Narrowly Beats China for the Most Golds,” stating that there were “fears China would ultimately take home the most golds.”
History shows, however, that the United States has not always been the winner of the most Olympic gold medals since the Summer Games first launched in 1896. It has fallen behind in the medal count at various times to such countries as Great Britain, Germany and the then-Soviet Union.
Since 1996, except for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the United States has won the most gold medals at each of the Summer Games. My friend may have been so patriotic about the Olympics because of a fear that China, like in the national security arena, might catch up with and eventually supplant the U.S. in medal wins.
This year in Tokyo, the U.S. earned 113 medals with 39 gold, while China came in second, taking 88 medals and securing 38 gold. Equally sensitive were the tallies for Japan and South Korea, with Japan ranking third, winning 58 medals, 27 of which were gold, while South Korea came in at 16th place, earning 20 medals, six of which were gold.
What my friends in the U.S. may not realize is how strong the rivalry is between Japan and South Korea in their quest for Olympic glory. In fact, South Korea has made great progress in its Olympic sporting endeavors. In 1984, South Korea came in 10th place for gold medals, taking six, while Japan tied Canada, coming in seventh place with 10 golds. Four years later at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, South Korea came in fourth, winning 12 golds, while Japan won just four. And in 2012, South Korean athletes also took home more golds than the Japanese athletes.
“This is probably the result of South Korea's rivalry with Japan and its dedication to improving its athletic performance,” said a former Japanese ambassador to South Korea. He may be right but that is not the end of the story.
What is funny is that most Japanese do not seem to show the same level of rivalry with South Korea as South Koreans show toward Japan. To put it bluntly, most Japanese do not know and hardly pay attention to the number of medals South Korea wins.
South Korea's gold medal total in Tokyo was its lowest since 1984, which many in Seoul considered a disaster. Seoul won 13 gold medals in 2012 and has seldom won fewer medals than Japan in both the Summer and Winter Games.
Five years ago, when Japan won more gold medals than South Korea at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games, South Korean media outlets did not try to hide their nationalistic feelings toward Japan, calling the results “humiliating,” “demeaning” and a knock to Korean pride.
This year, however, the way news outlets reported the nation's lackluster performance was different. According to reports, the mainstream media in South Korea appeared much less obsessed with the number or color of medals, and many outlets were more focused on the process than the results of the Games.
If this analysis is correct, it is very encouraging because it suggests that South Korean journalism is maturing. Of course, winning medals matters, especially the number of golds, and is a source of pride and joy for many. But with that said, there are things more important than medal counts.
Before my most recent visit to Washington, I never imagined that Americans were that concerned about China winning more medals than the U.S. Is that a healthy form of patriotism or an unhealthy kind of nationalism? It remains to be seen.
While it is good that the United States is paying keen attention to the potential threat posed by China in the Indo-Pacific region, it would not be wise to overreact to everything the Chinese do, particularly when it comes to nonpolitical, everyday activities such as winning Olympic sporting medals.
By the same token, while it is welcoming news that South Korea's sports reporting by the media is growing more sophisticated and mature, it is also wise to expect that their press coverage of Japan-South Korea relations will not so readily follow suit because of their shared history with Japan, which once ruled over the Korean Peninsula.
All in all, they are just medals. Nothing more and nothing less.
Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies. A former career diplomat, Miyake also serves as a special adviser to Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s Cabinet. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Japanese government.
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