During the Cold War, nations used the Olympics to compare rival political models. In democratic societies, athletic talent tends to bubble up through grassroots sports schools or clubs, while in centrally-planned states, young athletes were hand-picked from their homes at a tender age to train full-time in state-led sports programs and boarding schools.
Today the Soviet bloc may have dissolved, but its centrally-planned approach to sports endures: As political scientist Danyel Reiche argues in his new book Success and Failure of Countries at the Olympics (2016, Rutledge), top athletes around the world now benefit from policies pioneered by communist states, half a century ago.
According to Reiche, today’s best practices for maximizing Olympic medals derive from four Cold War-era principles: women’s participation, specialization, early adoption and central planning. Women’s participation reflects the fact that countries with higher levels of gender equality—often a sign of development more broadly—do better in the Olympics. But the other three approaches—specialization, early adoption and central planning—can be adopted by any nation, and currently characterize the strategy of several of the most successful countries at the Olympics.
1. Find a niche
To be very good at anything, find a niche and dump all your resources into it. According to Reiche, strategic specialization in Olympic sports was first introduced by East Germany back in 1969, where sports were classified into two groups: Sports 1 and Sports 2. Sports 1 were sports in which East German athletes had won medals in the past and showed potential to do so in the future. Only Sports 1 athletes got government funding and support.
The East German performance-driven and targeted funding model has become standard. The US Olympic Committee’s “pay-for-performance” model allocates funding from sponsors and donors to sports teams according to the projected number of medals each sport will bring in the next Olympics, while the UK government’s “no compromise” approach allocates public funding similarly. The UK raised its overall Olympic ranking from 36th to 3rd within 16 years, but caused controversy by cutting off funding to the national basketball team after a poor performance in the London 2012 games.
Specialization is how countries maximize their investments, as researchers Barrie Houlihan and Jinming Zheng of the UK’s Loughborough University pointed out in a 2013 study: After analyzing Olympic data from 1992, 2004 and 2012, they found that the top 10 medal-winning countries all earned 42-100% of their gold medals from just three sports. The US won 63% of all its 2012 medals in swimming, athletics, gymnastics. And in Kenya and Ethiopia, 100% of medals ever won came from just one sport: running.
2. Be the first to claim a new sport
So you need to specialize in order to win, but which sport to choose? Always pick the least-crowded field. For the Olympics, Reiche suggests focusing on sports that don’t exist—at least not yet. Country that want to become successful in the Olympics should focus on newly introduced sports and events, especially women’s events, he says. The idea is to tap into a new discipline and establish a comparative advantage before everyone else.
China has perfected this strategy since the Olympic inclusion of table tennis in 1988 and female weightlifting in 2000. Four years before female weightlifting became an Olympic event, China was preparing its female weightlifting squad. “Even before the decision was confirmed in 1998, scouts had been dispatched to the countryside, where parents were more likely than their urban counterparts to release their daughters into state care,” Time reported. The result: China has won 14 golds out of 28 ever awarded.
Other countries are doing it, too. South Korea doubled down on women’s archery when it was introduced in 1984, and according to IOC data, pocketed a total of 16 out of 17 gold medals ever awarded. It repeated its success with short-track speed skating, says Reiche, when the sport was introduced at the 1992 Winter Olympics. With rugby newly introduced this year at the Rio Olympics, Russia recently added rugby to its national physical education curriculum.
Newcomers looking for an area to own might consider skateboarding, karate, surfing, sports climbing or baseball/softball, for future medals. These five sports will make their first appearance at the Tokyo Summer Games in 2020.
3. Have a (central) plan
Once you know where and when to compete, you need to source and cultivate talent. Central planning, the essential organizing principle of communism, allows nations to allocate funding strategically to different types of sports, build schools, offer subsidies, and invest in research.
It’s extremely effective: While the US is the all-time world champion in terms of total Olympic medals won according to IOC data Quartz analyzed, the USSR is still ranked all-time winner number two with 1,204 medals, while East Germany ranks eighth with 519 medals—even though neither has won a single medal since 1988.
Of course, some of the success of the USSR and East Germany at their athletic heights may be linked to systematic doping. Boycotts during Olympic Games in the 1980s also likely affected the total medal count of nations over time. Nevertheless, it’s telling that all top 10 Olympic medal-winning nations have by now adopted some form of central governing sports body.
As a 1975 report laying out plans for Australia’s Institute of Sport (AIS) points out:
Australian sports development, it would appear, has just been allowed to happen. As such, its growth has been haphazard, uncoordinated and parochial.
Once AIS was established, it hurried to employ coaches from England, East Germany, Hungary, Ukraine, Russia and China to develop sports that Australia had little success before. It has also led research in sports science and medicine, created training facilities and provided more support for athletes, says Greg Blood, researcher of the AIS. Today, the Australian Institute of Sports is sometimes called a “medal factory,” producing athletes leading in swimming, cycling, rowing and sailing, continuously standing among the top-ten medal winners of each summer Olympics since 1992.
Without the presence of a government sports agency, the United States, as overall Olympic champion and fierce defender of the free market, might seem like a remarkable exception to Reiche’s theory. But even elite sports in the US are centrally directed, albeit by the US Olympics Committee (USOC).
Founded under the Amateur Sports Act of 1978, the USOC is a non-profit funded by corporate sponsorships and donations, according to its official website. So it’s a privatized, but nevertheless central system, where elite sports policies and funding are decided through USOC negotiations with the national sports authorities like the National Basketball Association. In 2011, for example, the USOC considered the USA Team Handball had little potential in the upcoming Olympic games, and cut 20% of its funding to the team.
“[The USOC was created] during Cold War times, and the last thing you wanted to do, was to show that we beat the commies using their methods,” says Lawrence Chalip, sports policy expert and health sciences department head at the University of Chicago.
“The system we have today is a relic of a Cold War mentality, which said: ‘Yes we need to centralize, but we can’t do it using communist methods.'”
Reporting contributed by Chi-an Wang. All medal counts mentioned are cut off at the 2012 London Olympics.