The Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games provide a wealth of information for analysts of the great power competition in which China and the United States are now engaged. It also offers three crucial lessons which, if taken into account, could help defuse bilateral tensions.

BEIJING – Among the internationally educated and savvy Chinese, no topical issue is more despised than the quarrels over the number of Chinese and US medals at the Tokyo Olympics. They don’t care much for narrow-minded nationalism, as it does for most educated Americans – and, in general, for me. But, as an economist, I’m not that dismissive of the discussion about the number of medals.

In fact, a country’s Olympic medal count can be very telling. First, it can reflect a country’s resources – the amount of physical and social capital it has accumulated. The larger and more prosperous a country’s economy, the more likely its citizens are to have leisure time and material resources to invest in supporting the preparation of their national teams for the Games.

Second, medals can be an indicator of a country’s social stability. A country ravaged by war or disease – like, this year, COVID-19 – is unlikely to have the luxury of giving much attention, let alone funds, to its athletes. Seen in this light, the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games provide a wealth of information for analysts of the great power competition in which China and the United States are now engaged, and offer three crucial lessons.

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