It’s too soon to say which country will take the most gold home from Sochi, but the sheer size and diversity of countries like Russia, the United States and Canada suggest that there will be plenty to go around; not because of one country’s attitude toward politics but because large general populations tend to encompass a great many smaller populations. Those smaller populations often have ethnic or cultural preferences that pre-dispose them to being good at certain sports and less good at others.
For instance, many people have noticed how many Canadians play hockey for American colleges and professional teams. How many African Americans are playing basketball? How many Dominicans playing baseball? The Irish, the Welsh and the Scots love Rugby, especially when they are playing Australians. Remember the Chinese when they were mostly good at ping-pong and only occasionally good at other sports?
It is absolute scientific hogwash to insist that these noticeable differences in sporting populations are based on race or breeding. The only valid studies done that explain why some ethnicities do better than others have shown that the best players of certain sports come from communities that value the particular sport. Basketball can be played on a small, urban lot and parks and recreation departments like the relative durability and low maintenance of urban basketball courts. It’s the same for handball, stickball and other improvised games.
Canada’s got lots of ice, ergo, hockey, skiing and skating. Suburbs have fields, so there’s your baseball, soccer and football.
American sports have been exported for years, and one of the easiest adjustments for the Japanese after World War II was to return to, and turn to, baseball, to put the occupying forces at ease. They liked the game and now have representatives of their country playing professional baseball far out of proportion to the general population of the world. But, on a larger scale, national hegemony over certain sports is disappearing as the Olympics introduce kids to new sports from all over the place.
In short, we participate in sports to the degree that our populations appreciate them and national “monopolies” on certain sports are on their way out.
So, while we may expect Americans, Russians and Chinese athletes to take gold this year, don’t be surprised if the podiums display a little more diversity this year than in the past. When those Jamaican bobsledders showed up a few years back, we pretty much knew they would be back and maybe bring some of their neighbors. It’s a trend.