Olympics Hangover

What a hypothetical EU medal count tells us about Europe's current identity

14/08/2012 | by Steven Hill

Category: European Union, Central Europe, Europe

Throughout the London Olympics, surprisingly few analysts asked the question of how the EU would perform at the games under a single team banner. This, despite discussion among Europeans over social media about the combined EU medal count being higher than any other competitor's, including the US and China's. These developments give an important snapshot as to where the European project currently stands.

Welsh Government / Llywodraeth Cymru, CC BY

Pop quiz of the week: Who won the most gold medals, as well as overall medals, in the 2012 Olympics? Was it the United States? China? Or Russia? Nope, nope and nope. Answer: Europe, and the competition was not even close. The US won 46 gold, China won 38 gold and Russia won 24 gold, but mighty Europe won 90 gold, more than the US and China combined. Total medal counts? The US had 104, China 87 and Russia 82. How many did Europe have? Three hundred and five. Yes, you read that correctly, 305—which is more than the US, China and Russia COMBINED.

For "Europe," I counted only European Union member states. If we add in Norway and Switzerland, plus other prospective EU members (Croatia, Serbia, Turkey, and Montenegro), that boosts European totals to 100 gold and 330 overall medals.

In the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Europe also left the competition in the dust. While China won 51 gold and the US won 36, European athletes won 86 gold. That was just one short of China and the US combined. The contest was not even close.

Go Team Europe!

But wait a minute. It’s rather telling that no Olympics analysts thought to point this out. One analyst even added up the 2012 medal count according to the old Cold War divide—United States versus the Soviet Union (the Soviets kicked America's tail). Yet no one thought to compare the European Union to anyone else. No doubt it reflects that the world isn't used to viewing the European Union as a single nation, especially not lately, given the uncertainty swirling around the European project.

But the medal count does raise an intriguing question: Is Europe a single nation or a union of individual nations? Increasingly, the answer is: both (though others might respond: neither). Yet it’s very much a work in progress. Still, it does give one small indication of what the power and prestige of a United States of Europe might be when you realize that European athletes left the international competition in the dust. It will be interesting to see how we answer this question four years from now, at the next summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

STEVEN HILL (www.Steven-Hill.com) is the author of Europe's Promise: Why the European Way is the Best Hope in an Insecure Age and 10 Steps to Repair American Democracy.

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