The Olympics and the Spirit of Capitalism


The winter Olympics may seem an odd occasion to celebrate the virtues of entrepreneurial capitalism and economic decentralization, but a front-page piece in today’s New York Times provides an appropriate opportunity to do just that.

As the winter games conclude, the U.S. leads all competing countries in total medals won – 36 and counting – and is on pace to break the record for the most medals won at the winter games. An incredible feat, and one achieved largely without reliance on government-funded athletic programs that have traditionally molded Olympic athletes and that are still used by much of the world.

Less so in the U.S, where private trainers and corporate sponsors have provided the ways and means to success. From medal-winners like speed skater Shani Davis, who has a strained relationship with the sport’s U.S. governing body, to downhill skier Lindsey Vonn and snowboard superstar Shaun White, both of whom train independently, some of America’s most successful athletes have charted an independent course to the medal podium.

It’s interesting to contrast this individualist approach to training with the statist, factory-style sport programs of, say, communist China. With the express goal of demonstrating socialism’s superiority over capitalist systems, China has long relied on an athletic conscription program that selects promising candidates at a young age, channels them into regimented training facilities, isolates them from families and loved ones, and subjects them to a punishing and sometimes sadistic training regimen. Success is not rewarded with greater freedom. The accomplished Chinese pair skaters Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo, though married, are still forced to live in separate dormitories.

This approach occasionally yields results – Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo won the gold medal at this year’s Olympics – but it has not paid dividends on a broader scale: China’s medal haul is a paltry 11 medals.

Admittedly, this is a bit unfair to the Chinese, who have had more success in the summer games and who have little experience in some of the sports – e.g., snowboarding – that the U.S. has dominated. Still, the U.S.’s achievement at the 2010 games suggests that there is a lot to be said for the laissez-fair approach favored by American Olympians. Hard work, practice, and dedication are all contributing factors in America’s unprecedented medal run. But good-old-fashioned capitalism and entrepreneurship has certainly done its part.