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Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: Part 14

I promise, no more endless bits about sociology and American sport.    In Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: Part 13 I gave the final necessary background to understand some of the screwiness of sports in this country including a look at gender issues along with the amateur professional issue.  Frankly, given how messed up the system is and given the nature of the Olympics and the requirement for amateur status, it’s amazing that America does anything at the Olympics.  Yet we do.  Quite a lot of something actually.  Let’s start with the American sports ‘system’.

The American No-System Sports  System

As I discussed at some point last week, the US is very decentralized.  The spread of our country, the local pockets of culture, the immigrant nature of our people keeps pretty much everything in this country from having much overall consistency except existing under the same flag.   Case in point, laws can vary drastically between different states.  So what is legal or illegal in New York may be illegal or legal elsewhere.  There are no consistent standards in this country except for big, loud, stupid, Michael Bay movies and nobody using metric.  Maybe a couple of others.

And just as there is little else centralized or consistent in the US, our approach to sports is no different.  Because there is just no real sports system in this country, at least not in the sense that it existed in many other countries. And this just isn’t a Communist vs. Western thing.   Canada has Sports Canada overseeing it, Australia has the AIS.  America has nothing of the kind and so far as I can tell it’s the only country that is set up this way.  Inasmuch as anything is set up. Mostly it seems, like Kenya, to just have sort of happened this way and you can be sure that it’s never going to change.  Americans don’t like change either.

At most there is the USOC overseeing Olympic issues as a whole, individual sports all have their own federations (or in the case of powerlifting, 37 different competing federations; professional boxing suffers this as well) but that’s about as far as it goes.  There is no singular governing body, no consistent coaching philosophy or theory or training program or even requirements to become a coach.

And in the same way that nobody was willing to accept the metric system, it’s pretty clear that nobody would accept an attempt to impose a government defined sporting organization; at most some individual sports have adopted things like the Canadian Coaching Association approach with different levels of qualification.  Most sports ignore it completely.

In other countries, you get years of school and training before you touch an athlete.   In America, anyone who puts coach on their business card (or in front of their name on the Internet) is a coach.  It’s our constitutional right.   A coach is defined by the success he creates or who he can get to pay him.  It’s capitalism.


The Russian Ways Are Better, Comrade

Folks obsessed with the Russian and Chinese and Eastern European sports systems often lament the lack of a centralized sport system in America; they have such a hard-on for everything Communist/Socialist and want it to be the same way here and are unable to accept two important realities about the US and it’s no-system sport ‘system’.

First and foremost is that,  as you’ll see shortly, the US still managed to kick some pretty serious ass in many sports at the Olympic and world level despite not being set up like Commieland ™ or Germanland ™.  The US simply doesn’t dominate in a lot of the sports that other countries put so much energy into (that we neither get nor care about).  Or the ones that those most obsessed with the Soviet, German, Russian, or Chinese systems focus on.   Effectively, they think our ‘system’ fails because we don’t medal in the sports they happen to personally like.  It would be like criticizing Russia for not dominating monster truck rallies.

But medals we certainly do win.  In fact, we’re usually near the top (if not at the top) of the total medal haul board at the summer Olympics (and we don’t do badly in winter for that matter).   I’ll give specifics below.  But in Beijing for example, we took the most total medals (110 total and 30 some odd golds to China’s 100). Over every other Not the US country.   So all the Communist/Socialist sports sympathizers need to accept reality: going by medal count, our non-system ‘works’ pretty well.  And it always has.


Respect My Culture, Or I’ll Shoot You

These second thing these folks fail to realize that trying to institute the systems that worked in those countries doesn’t usually work here for a variety of reasons.   These folks forget that the sports systems of training that developed in Russia, Germany, China and others came out of the underlying sociological, political and ideological beliefs of those countries which is why I spent so much damn time discussing them.  And so much more time discussing America in the same light.

You can’t just bring over a coach that only knows how to deal with good little Communist/Socialist robots who have been trained to sit the hell down and shut the hell up on command and expect them to get anywhere with the majority of American athletes with the traditional American independent streak.   Not in most sports anyhow.   There are a couple of exceptions which share the same characteristics.

The first springs to mind might be Bela Karolyi and girl’s gymnastics where he instituted the child-abuse levels of training that made the Romanians great and produced American greatness in that sport.  But girls gymnastics tends to be populated by psycho athletes and psycho parents who will do anything to win.  And 12 year old girls with daddy issues and eating disorders aren’t known for speaking their mind.   A similar situation exists in figure skating, another sport populated by crazy parents and young girls with daddy issues, neither of whom act terribly rationally.  Read Little Girls in Pretty Boxes: The Making and Breaking of Elite Gymnasts and Figure Skaters by Joan Ryan to see just how psychotic those two sports and their athletes are.

But when you try to apply that same approach to a bunch of 22 year old male American athletes, you don’t get real far for the most part.  Sure, a handful may choose to follow the Sovietski sports secrets but the majority will tell the guy to go fuck himself if he’s brought in and tries to do things the way he did it back in his home country without recognizing that the culture is different and the athletes have to be treated differently.  It’s happened from time to time and that’s usually the result: Eurocoach treats the athletes like he did back home and everyone rebels.

Alternately, Eurocoach comes in from one of the state sponsored doping programs, institutes identical training systems without recognizing that American athletes didn’t go through that country’s long-term development program and he destroys them with training loads that only work when you have 1000 athletes and they are all on huge amounts of drugs given to them by the country’s doctors.  That happens a lot.

And again the simple fact is that despite our lack of a ‘system’ and every other issue I bored you with up until this point, we still manage to kick some ass (or at least generate phenomenal athletes) in a bunch of sports, just not generally the ones that other countries (or the Americans who love everything Soviet/GDR/Bulgarian/Chinese) cared about.

But before looking at that, I want to make a quick tangent and look at something else about the US approach to Olympic sports that can sometimes play a role in what we do or do not do well in (this also applies to something I’m going to mention about cycling in a few days).  And that’s the Olympic team selection process.


Do a Bunch of Guys Equal a Team?

Remember how when I talked about the old USSR I expressed the point made to me by Glenn Pendlay that much of Soviet competition was internal, countries under the Soviet banner who were trying to one-up each other but who would come together under the Soviet flag when it was time to represent for Mother Russia?  Or even with UK track cycling where despite the confusing nature of the UK (well, confusing to me), etc. riders from different and technically competing countries will all race under the same banner when it’s time to do so?

Well in the US, we have a situation similar to the Soviet Union due to the fact that all we have is a lot of little pockets of local culture.  But we also have that individualistic streak and are really competitive with one another.  And Americans are selfish and often don’t play well with others.   Often including other Americans.

Sports rivalries are massive in this country both at the professional, collegiate and local level.  Sports are divided up into all kinds of different divisions depending on location and grouping that compete amongst themselves and between college rivalries are huge (people will also argue the relative superiority of one group vs. another).  Professional football has both a National Football Conference and American Football conference with team and city rivalries and arguments about NFC vs. AFC. You get the idea.  It’s just as messy and decentralized as the rest of our country in this regard.

And this shows up when we put our Olympic teams together because, and this is especially true in team sports; teams often end up being a hodge-podge of players from different teams and different federations who get selected, thrown together for a couple of weeks and and expected to work together as a team.  It happens in at least two Olympic sports which are basketball and baseball, but it happens in soccer and hockey too.

And to explain why this is a problem, I want to talk about something that goes on in some sports  in the US which is the All-Star game in baseball (or Pro Bowl in football).  Basically, for the fun of the fans, they pick all the best players at each position from each division and put them together to play against one another.  And the game usually sucks.  Because these are team sports and a bunch of guys, even stars, do work within the context of their team. And when you just pick a bunch of stars who have never played together, you get less than the sum of the parts: it’s less of a team and more a bunch of individuals playing a pick-up game.

And this extends to the Olympic level because that’s effectively how we pick our Olympic teams, which we then put up against international teams that have done nothing but practice together ALL the time as a team.  Which is what happens in most countries that pursue sports at the Olympic level and don’t have a professional league of any sort.  It’s only sports with a professional end that have this issue and there mainly in the US because of everything else about our country and people.

A related factor in all of this being that the international versions of these sports often have subtly different rules than the professional leagues; another disadvantage for countries that don’t focus on them specifically at the international or Olympic level.  Countries that only play internationally know the rules and countries that pick guys from college or the pros (once they were allowed) have to change the play style they’ve used for decades.


My Enemy is Not My Friend

There’s another issue related to putting together Olympic teams in this sort of all-star way.  Because as often as not, the players you’re trying to throw together on the same team were competitors during the normal season. And depending on the sport, the personalities that it attracts and the size of the egos involved, different athletes are relatively better or worse at putting any bad blood they might have against a now ‘teammate’ aside for the good of the team/USA.

So not only is the team made up a bunch of individuals who don’t know each other’s playing styles, sometimes having to change their personal playing style (due to differences in international rules compared to the professional versions), but a lot of the time they can’t stand one another and can’t get over themselves to defeat the real enemy: FOREIGNLAND ™.

So while other countries are training and perfecting team dynamics with a team for years at a time, the US tries to handpick a bunch of the best athletes from different schools or teams and just throw them together.  And it often fails.  It’s thought that this is one reason the US couldn’t beat the Russians at hockey for so long despite having the apparent talent.

We kept trying to put together all star teams at trials and were putting them up against the Russian national team that had played together it’s whole life.  So the Russians know how to play as a team and the Americans don’t.  And in team sports that makes a big difference.

And it’s thought that one of the reasons the US beat Russia in 1980 in ice hockey (dubbed the Miracle on Ice) is because coach Herb Brooks didn’t pick the best players for the team, he picked the right players.  That is, he selected players who would and could gel together as a team and trained them to work as such.  That, and his awesome hair won the day.

Herb Brooks
The 70’s were an ugly decade.

An ugly, ugly decade.


Individual vs. Team Sports

I’d note that the above dynamic doesn’t show up in individual sports that form as ‘teams’ because they are usually only ‘teams’ inasmuch as it’s a bunch of guys earning points in different events.  So in track and field, the only working together you get is in the relays (and there are often interpersonal problems there, Carl Lewis is notorious for the problems he caused by being a primadonna pain in the ass).   Throwers and jumpers aren’t working together in the sense that individuals in team sports are.  They don’t have to like one another.

Swimming is the same way, where most of the team is just earning points towards the total and doing it by trying to earn an individual medal.  Certainly there are relays but swimming attracts a certain personality and they seem pretty able to put away petty rivalries to kick ass (usually Australian ass, the best kind of ass to kick for an American swimmer).

Individual sports also don’t have the team dynamics or tactics or any of that stuff that also contribute to this; where a lack of players that know how to work with one another can make the best athletes completely incompetent in competition.   Even in swimming or track relays, it’s 4 guys doing an individual time trial one after another.  The only tactics are ‘go fast and turn as necessary’ and pick 4 guys who can do those 2 things.  In team sports, working as a team is crucial.

Essentially, at the Olympics, it doesn’t matter if your shotputters and javelin throwers don’t get along or if your freestyle swimmer and your breastroker hate one another; they aren’t usually working together (outside of the medley relay).  And the rules aren’t different.  But it matters a lot if your pitcher and catcher in baseball can’t get it together and work together for whatever reason.  Or they are having to adapt to a different set of rules than they’ve played under their whole lives.

But the simple fact is that despite all of this, despite our decentralized system, despite everything else I’ve bored you with, the simple fact is this: the US is still the dominant overall sporting power in the Olympics by the only metric that matters: medals won.  And now I’m going to prove it with charts and data.


Definition of Dominance

First let’s define US dominance at the Olympic level.   Because if you look at the only metric that matters, which is total medals (and total gold medals) the US does just fine.  You can find the raw data on this on the following page which provides the  total medal count across every modern Olympic games.   To save you a click, I’ve cut the data on the top three medal winners and put it in easy to read chart format.  First the summer games which have been held longer and have more events.  This is the total medal count for gold, silver and bronze along with total medals won.


Country G S B Total
USA #1  929  729  639 2296
Soviet Union + Russia  503 431  381 1327
Germany  247  284  320 851


So over double the total medals and gold medals for the US to second place Soviet Union.  Given that the USSR broke up, I added in the medals won under Russia as well but it doesn’t really change anything; you could add medals won by all of the smaller countries an the US still comes out ahead.  What I’m saying is that Russian athletes should be buying our American sports secrets, not the other way around.

And Germany has less than one third of either the total golds or total summer medals; they just totally dominated for a short period in a couple of sports that, prior to their rise, the US dominated, got and cared about (track and field and swimming) so it looked like they were kicking out ass harder than they really were.

Moving to the winter games, the US isn’t as good but we’ve never been nearly as much of a winter sport country.


Country G S B Total
Norway 107 106 90 303
Germany 89 93 66 248
USA #3 87 95 71 253


The Soviet Union was fourth on this list with a total of 194 medals.  But clearly the US does just fine in the winter games as well.  Now let’s look at total medals over the history of the Olympic games.


Total Medals
Country G S B Total
USA #1 FUCK YEAH! 1016 824 709 2549
Soviet Union + Russia 617 502 493 1612
Germany 336 377 386 1099


So again the US is simply overwhelmingly dominant if you look at total winter and summer Olympics; again I added medals won by Russia to the Soviet Union total; we still come out ahead.  It’s also worth noting that not all countries have competed in all the Olympics and the US has been in the most, and that does skew our overall medal haul.    The bottom line is that despite our non-centralized sports system and everything else, we still overwhelmingly dominate at the Olympic level in terms of the only metric that matters: total and gold medals.


America Knows Some Sports

But as I mentioned first in the section on China and again above, the biggest difference is the sports that the US dominate in.  Looking solely at Beijing in 2008, as I mentioned, 70% of our gold medals came from swimming, track and field and the ball sports (basketball, volleyball, soccer, which is odd given our lack of interest in it, and beach volleyball).   You can see the full list of the sports the US medalled in here and the other 30% just come from a motley assortment of sports including women’s cycling, rowing, fencing, equestrian and others.

But the majority come from the above sports: track and field and the ‘ball’ sports including soccer and volleyball.  It was women’s soccer that won and volleyball included both men and women along with beach volleyball, another American sport invention (that we therefore rule at).

And while I’m not going to talk about soccer or volleyball further, it’s worth noting that both have similar schemes to the sports I’m going to talk about: to whit, huge interest at the high school and collegiate level with incentives including education.  So a lot of people still pursue those sports even if we haven’t given the first damn about professional soccer to this point.  And volleyball doesn’t exist as a professional sport (beach volleyball does) so many top collegiate volleyball players switch sports once college and binge-drinking ends.

And it’s not as if we don’t produce at all in the winter Olympics as the statistics above show.  For example, in 2002 in Salt Lake the US was second in the total medal count with 33 total medals; we were third in terms of total gold medals and we rank third in terms of overall medals behind Norway and Germany.   There is actually an interesting bit of trivia about the US winter Olympics performance that I’ll get to in a couple of days to mindfreak you.

But as above, winter sports have never really captured the US mind for a lot of reasons, not the least of which that we don’t get a lot of them.  Or that are just too boring for even us to watch (i.e. cross country skiing).  I’m honestly surprised that biathlon never caught on; there’s a gun involved and we love guns.  But the shooting is broken up with all of those boring skiing bits and we lose our mental erection.   If it was just shooting shit in the snow, we’d watch it for hours.


Pick Your Battles

Like China, we tend to do well in a select few sports in terms of our majority medals. But it wasn’t really planned. The sports we consistently do well in internationally are the ones that come out of our overall sporting ‘system’ as a whole for reasons you’ll come to understand in the next couple of days as I look at some of them.

So again, it’s not as if the USA, despite it’s decentralized non-system fails to produce.  Quite in fact we’ve always done pretty well at the highest levels of sport, just in some very specific sports.  Track and field and swimming I’ll talk about specifically in a couple of days to see if anything can be gleaned from our ‘systems’ in those sports in the context of this overall series.

Before that I want to talk about some American sports that live in a strange place and those are the big three: football, baseball and basketball.  Because they still have an overall impact on our overall sporting dominance on top of the impact that they have in terms of where our athletes go.

Understanding what we do (and thus) don’t do well in means understanding the role of those specific sports to America which means they get discussed.  And I have to get this out of my head.  And it’s already written.  See you tomorrow.  I hope you’re ready for some Football.  Real football. Not soccer.

Read Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: Part 15.

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