by Mateusz Zatonski
With most of CtB’s contributors currently residing Great Britain, we have naturally been closely following the Olympic and Paralympic Games that recently took place in the city of London. We have of course paid particular attention to the performance of athletes representing the countries of the Baltic rim. The world’s biggest sporting event proved to be a mixed bag for our region.
The best performers amongst the countries blessed with a piece of the Baltic coastline were the two most populous states – Germany and Russia. Germany came 6th in the medal count for the Olympic Games, and 8th in the Paralympics. Russia did even better, ranking 4th and 2nd respectively. Nonetheless, few Germans and Russians were happy with the results, as both countries fell by one position in respect to the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing – Germany was overtaken by South Korea, while Russia by the hosts, Great Britain.
Nonetheless, the consistency in obtaining top positions that the two countries have demonstrated in the last decades does not cease to impress. While it is understandable in case of the affluent German state, Russia’s continuing triumphs can be somewhat surprising. While the collapse of communist regimes, which often harnessed the entire state apparatus to achieve sporting glory and propaganda success, has been followed by a deterioration in sporting results in much of the central-east European states, the same slump seems not to have affected the former Soviet Union republics. In fact, if all of them were still to run under the hammer-and-sickle banner in the Olympic Games, they would have taken over USA and China in the final medal count – also thanks to the surprisingly good performance by the Baltic States (Lithuania won 5 medals, while Latvia and Estonia 2 apiece).
Unfortunately, other countries of the Baltic region cannot boast results approaching those of Germany and the former Soviet countries. Denmark won 9 medals in the Olympics (ranking 29th) and just 5 in the Paralympics (ranking 50th). Sweden won 8 and 12 respectively (ranking 37th and 29th). The Paralympic results are particularly disappointing for the two Scandinavian countries that pride themselves on being at the forefront of the struggle for rights of disabled people. The performance of the Finns, admittedly a nation whose collective imagination is more easily captured by the Winter Olympics, was even poorer, with 3 medals on the Olympic tally, none of them gold. This placed Finland below the less populous Latvia and Lithuania, and barely ahead of its small Estonian neighbour.
The most disappointing Olympic performance was probably that of Poland, a large state of 38-million inhabitants, represented by over 200 athletes, and boasting a rich Olympic past and high sporting ambitions. Poland won just 10 medals, only 2 of them gold, making the performance of the Polish athletes the worst since the 1956 Olympics, and taking 30th place in the medal table. Curiously, the Polish Paralympic team, despite severe underfunding and lack of interest of Polish media, broke into the top 10, taking 9th place with seven times more gold medals than their Olympic compatriots, and 36 medals in total.
It seems that similar disappointments could be avoided if the smaller countries of the region were to increase their focus on particular disciplines. While the German and Russian powerhouses can afford to take a broader front, seeking medals in various disciplines, perhaps states with smaller financial (such as Poland) or demographic (such as Finland) resources should seek to specialise in a smaller number of strategically selected sports. A similar strategy was undertaken by Hungary, one of the success stories of London 2012. This post-Communist country of less than 10 million inhabitants came 9th in the final medal count, just after Italy, with 6 out of its 17 medals won in a single discipline – canoe sprint.
Despite some setbacks, the Baltic region remains an Olympic and Paralympic powerhouse. With a total of 162 Olympic medals (43 gold) and a whopping 223 Paralympic medals, it beats the USA, with its 104 Olympic medals, by a wide margin, despite a smaller combined population (around 290 million versus USA’s 314 million).
It is therefore with hope of more sporting glory that we look two years ahead towards Sochi, where Russia will host the 2014 Winter Olympic and Paralympic games.