The U.S. is off to a great start at the Rio Olympics, where they have dominated high-profile events like swimming and women’s gymnastics. They lead gold and total medals.
These wins come in spite of the country’s unusual lack of government involvement in sports. Indeed, they may even come because of that lack of government involvement.
The United States Olympic Committee officially organizes the athletes that represent the country at the Olympic Games. Its website states that “it is a federally chartered nonprofit corporation and does not receive federal financial support (other than for select Paralympic military programs).” By contrast, almost every other nation on earth has a government-funded and government-run department, solely for sports. In countries such as Canada and the U.K., the government has an appointed sports minister. In countries such as China, the government runs a set of rigid national programs intended to maximize their competitiveness.
A question: With no government funding going toward its Olympic efforts, how has the U.S. performed better than everybody else over the last several decades? After all, sports have only gotten more competitive worldwide, and it is not as if countries such as China lack the resources to train their best athletes. And yet the U.S. has led the world in both gold and total medals at the Summer Olympics every year since countries in the former Soviet Bloc stopped competing as a unified team (the only exception was in 2008, in which year host nation China won the most golds and the U.S. won the most in total). Oddly, countries with more robust, centralized systems do not seem to be getting a return on their subsidies. Maybe they are missing part of the fun of it.
This year, for the second time in a row, the U.S. beat China in women’s all-around gymnastics, despite prognosticators’ recent warnings that the Chinese government’s intense training programs would lead to that country’s domination of the sport. Could it be that, despite warnings to the contrary, state power is less efficient at maximizing talent than individuals or local communities? In China, an elite group is trained to compete from a young age. But this poses problems, among them that the initiative is taken away from the athletes themselves, and the all-knowing state is assumed to be the best judge of talent and resource-allocation. And so, despite supposedly scooping up the best gymnastics talent and giving them the best training (and doing some cheating along the way) China continues to lose ground to a country that does not devote public funds to the Olympics, and that has a fraction of its population.
It does not take a genius to figure out that sports are best served by allowing the people that play them to plot their own course. American Simone Biles’s dream of being a champion gymnast was guided by family and coaches, not an impersonal state apparatus. Had she been born in China, her success would have depended entirely on being noticed by government officials.
As ever, concentrating power in the hands of the few is not the right principle to guide just and equitable athletics. Freedom to pursue one’s own dreams has led to an explosion of talent in U.S. sports, and it came primarily without guidance from the soft or strong hand of government.