- By Joshua Keating
Joshua Keating is associate editor at Foreign Policy and the editor of the Passport blog. He has worked as a researcher, editorial assistant, and deputy Web editor since joining the FP staff in 2007. In addition to being featured in Foreign Policy, his writing has been published by the Washington Post, Newsweek International, Radio Prague, the Center for Defense Information, and Romania's Adevarul newspaper. He has appeared as a commentator on CNN International, C-Span, ABC News, Al Jazeera, NPR, BBC radio, and others. A native of Brooklyn, New York, he studied comparative politics at Oberlin College.
Vladimir Putin once famously said that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe" of the 20th century. That may not be true, but from the Kremlin’s point of view, it was inarguably an Olympic catastrophe.
Russia finished the 2012 Olympics with a respectable 82 total medals (putting it in third place behind the U.S. and China) and 24 golds (putting it in fourth behind Britain). But what if things had turned out differently in the early 1990s and the Soviet Union were still intact? Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and Belarus all put in strong showings at the games. In fact, 13 of the 15 former Soviet states got at least one medal, including just the third ever* for tiny Tajikistan. (Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan failed to medal.)
If you add up all 13 countries you get 163 medals — well ahead of the U.S. total of 104. The USSR would have been awarded 46 golds — tied with the red, white, and blue. With 16.9 percent of the total medals, the hypothetical Soviet Union would have nearly tied the real Soviet Union’s haul of 17.8 percent in 1988.
(It would have been an indisputable victory if Belarusian shot-putter Nadzeya Ostapchuk hadn’t been stripped of her medal after testing positive for an anabolic steroid today.)
Back in the world of currently existing countries, the Olympic prediction models I wrote about before the games all had the correct top 4, though China and Britain got many more medals than expected. Australia, which normally punches above its weight at the games, was probably the biggest surprise on the negative end.
*Correction, Aug. 13, 2012: The original post incorrectly stated that Tajikistan won its first medal at this year’s Olympics. It actually won two at the 2008 Olympics.