the table of medals by country at the Olympic Games, a more political than sporting issue

This is an almost immutable ritual. At the end of the Paris 2024 Olympic Games, the final table of medals, country by country, will be scrupulously scrutinized. As in each of the previous editions, sports leaders, politicians and media from all over the world will be proud or alarmed by the good or bad ranking of their national delegations.

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For France, beyond the smooth running of the – complex – organization of the event, it is above all by the number of medals that the success of these Games will be judged. The President of the Republic himself wanted to remind him, a few days after the end of the Tokyo Games, in September 2021. “The success of the Games will be the success of our athletes, because it works like that”declared Emmanuel Macron in front of the sportsmen and the leaders of the French sport, fixing an objective: to integrate the “top 5” medals.

Why has this accounting logic invaded people’s minds to excess? This classification, in any case, has nothing to do with a creation of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). “The IOC has always denounced this classification of nations”, recalls Patrick Clastres, historian of Olympism. The Olympic Charter is unequivocal: “The Olympic Games are competitions between athletes, in individual or team competitions and not between countries. »

Political recovery

These are “American newspapers, from the end of the XIXe century “, who launched this accounting, while “their athletes had just triumphed in Athens in 1896 [11 titres, 1er rang des médailles]recalls Patrick Clastres. They defended the thesis that the results of the Games are a reflection of the power of nations..

A quote from a German sports newspaper from 1913, taken from an article published in the journal Geopolitics in 1999, illustrates the almost warlike perversion of the spirit of the Games: “The Olympic idea of ​​the modern era symbolizes a world war, which does not show its military character overtly, but gives sufficient insight into the hierarchy of nations. »

In the interwar period, the rise of fascism fueled the political recovery of the exploits of athletes. The Cold War continues the process by including the sporting dimension in the frontal opposition between the United States and the USSR.

This confrontation, by interposed “sporting battlefields”, conquered the minds, even the less belligerent. All media – The world included – count the harvest of medals and draw up sometimes scathing analyzes in the event of a bad record.

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