Mexico’s performance at the Tokyo Olympic Games was a disaster. The world’s 10th most populated nation, boasting the world’s 15th largest economy and bringing the 17th largest delegation of athletes (161) to Tokyo, finished 84th in the official medal standings, winning only four bronze medals.
According to this handy Bloomberg chart, Mexico won .03 medals per million inhabitants. Among all 97 medal winners at Tokyo, only India, Indonesia, and Nigeria fared worse relative to the size of their populations (and by far the largest nation to not win a medal was Bangladesh).
Tokyo represents a step backwards for the country’s athletes, as Mexican Olympic Committee President Carlos Padilla has acknowledged, given that Mexico obtained 8 medals in London in 2012 and 5 in Rio in 2016 (and not all bronze). All told, in its entire Olympic history, dating back to Paris 1900, Mexico has obtained 73 medals (including 9 as host in 1968). Its 13 all-time gold medals are fewer than the gold medals won by Australia in Tokyo alone. Or compare, as economists often do in other contexts, the Republic of Korea and Mexico’s divergent paths over time. In Munich, in 1972, both nations won a sole silver medal. At Tokyo, Korea won 20 medals (6 gold) to Mexico’s 4.
It’s all a bit humiliating, a blow to the national ego, but does it really matter in the grand scheme of things? Should we care that Mexico is a terrible Olympian? Are Olympic medal rankings, in other words, an indicator of anything beyond the scores of a series of sporting events?
I called up Charles Kenny, the smartest development expert I know, and posed him that question. Kenny, a Senior Fellow and Director of Technology and Development at the Center for Global Development, said the correlation between Olympic performance and a society’s broader living standard or well-being might not be as tidy as I suspected.
“Sure, wealthier nations can afford to build more swimming pools, velodromes, and archery ranges for future Olympians, so resources do matter,” Kenny said, “but there is also a fair amount of randomness and subjectivity when it comes to the Games, such as the question of which sports count, and how much.”
“Take Australia,” he adds, “which happens to be absolutely mad about swimming. Luckily for them, the Olympics awards endless swimming medals in all sorts of different events. But what if your entire country is mad about soccer, where there will only be 2 medals awarded? Or a sport like cricket, that isn’t an Olympic sport, for whatever reason?”
And while it might be tempting to see a link between Mexico’s poor performance and the country’s notorious obesity problem, Kenny noted that plenty of countries that dominated the medal count (starting with the US and China) have serious obesity problems of their own. And Kenny also shared with me OECD surveys of kids asked whether they participate in physical activity outside their school; fewer Mexican kids than the average reported doing no such activity.
To Kenny’s eye, one of the more problematic Mexican Olympic metrics I shared with him has less to do with results and medals, and more to do with representation by gender. At an Olympics at which 49% of athletes were female, and to which China and the United States brought majority-female teams, Mexico’s delegation was made up of 96 men and 65 women. “Now that does say a lot about underlying social realities,” Kenny said, “and the extent to which a community is encouraging everyone to fulfill their highest potential.”
Even when taking Kenny’s admonition not to read too much into the overall medal rankings into account, Mexican sport clearly suffers from a lack of investment up and down the sporting pyramid. At the grassroots level, while many kids might report playing informal pick-up soccer or basketball, there is a serious dearth of access to a variety of sports at a young age, in any organized fashion. And at the very elite top of the sporting pyramid, there have been plenty of reports on the lack of support given Mexico’s elite Olympians (most notably, Alexa Moreno) and the perennial challenge posed by poor governance over sport.
Sport requires investment and in terms of per capita income, Mexico’s global ranking (70th by some measures) on this measure, to be fair, more closely approximates its medals ranking than the other measures I pointed to above. But the bigger issue here, beyond hard resources, is what I’d call the “cultural prioritization” (or lack thereof) of sport.
Mexico has a long way to go in embracing exercise and sport, especially for girls, as part of a child’s well-rounded formation. The country’s underdeveloped civil society and associational volunteerism muscle exacerbates the problem. It may be starting to change, but Mexico lacks a strong tradition of volunteer-driven youth recreational sports leagues, being a country that relies too heavily on the state and formal educational institutions for any such activities. And in that sense, Olympic performance is an indicator of a broader social shortfall.
And yet, the only thing worse than a country underperforming so badly at the Olympics might be a country that overperforms as a result of its government’s unhealthy, authoritarian obsession to prove its worth, or legitimacy, via sport. In this sense, Mexico’s indifference to its performance can be interpreted as a healthy sign; winning at all costs is not a project of state, as it was for so many Soviet bloc countries during the Cold War, and continues to be for the likes of Russia, China, and Cuba. I’d much prefer Mexico to win only four bronze medals than to win 20 medals because Palacio Nacional determined it would prove the superiority of its “Cuarta Transformacion” (or whatever the ideological flavor of the moment was) on the fields of play.
But there is a healthy way to win, one that organically reflects the dynamism of a nation’s culture around play, wellness, and sport, and the opportunities for its citizens to play, fulfill their potential, and lead healthy lives. This is probably why countries like the Netherlands, New Zealand, and Australia punch above their weight in at the Olympics. Their medals are a source of national pride, sure, but more importantly, symptomatic of underlying societal harmony.
Well, that, and an obsession with swimming.
* Andrés Martínez is a professor of practice in the Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University and the editorial director of Future Tense, a Washington, D.C.-based ideas journalism partnership between ASU, Slate magazine, and New America .Twitter: @AndresDCmtz