Freedom Takes the Gold | Freedom House

Freedom Takes the Gold

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The final results of the London Olympics are in, and those who root for democracy in other contexts can take pride in the outcome. Nearly two-thirds of the total medals—and of gold medals—were won by countries that are designated as Free in Freedom in the World. Countries designated as Not Free grabbed slightly more than a quarter of all medals and around 30 percent of gold medals.

2012 Medal Count

Freedom Status

Gold Medals

Total Medals

Share of Gold

Share of Medals


(48 countries)





Partly Free

(17 countries)





Not Free

(18 countries)





It’s not often these days that we identify freedom with international sports. Indeed, the federations that set the rules for various global athletic competitions have emerged as enablers for the world’s certified authoritarians and aspiring autocrats. Consider:

  • China, the universally acknowledged model for modern authoritarian control, hosted the 2008 Olympic Games.
  • Russia, whose rubber-stamp parliament has just rushed through a package of laws designed to silence the political opposition and stifle civic activism, will host the 2014 Winter Olympics and international soccer’s 2018 World Cup. (The 2022 World Cup will be hosted by Qatar, an absolute monarchy.)
  • Belarus, the target of a recent teddy-bear bombardment aimed at protesting the dictatorship of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, will host the 2014 Ice Hockey World Championship.
  • Ukraine, where the prosecution of opposition leaders has heralded a steep slide into authoritarian governance, cohosted the recent European soccer championship.
  • Bahrain, whose royal family has persecuted prodemocracy protesters, played host to a Formula 1 auto race earlier this year.

If nothing else, these events have served to rebut the hoary argument that when a country is treated as a normal member of the international community, it will behave that way. The number of political prisoners increased in China during the run-up to the 2008 Olympics, and censorship became more pervasive and sophisticated. Ukraine stepped up the persecution of the Orange opposition prior to the soccer championship. Neither Russia nor Belarus has given evidence of political relaxation as the dates of their tournaments draw near.

But in a welcome bit of good news, Great Britain has just shown the world that a democratic society can preside over a superb international sporting event and place the focus on swimmers, runners, and jumpers, rather than the oppressive political system of the host country. Indeed, despite gloomy prophesies of security breaches, subpar venues, and a general lack of preparedness, the London games were first rate in just about every dimension. As seems obligatory these days, the pageantry was excessive, but the organizers avoided the totalitarian-style choreography that distinguished the ceremonies in Beijing. Nor did the British find it necessary, as the Chinese leadership apparently did, to destroy thousands of homes, muzzle journalists, lock away human rights activists, or bundle malcontents and migrant workers out of town in order to achieve “harmony” during the two weeks of the Olympiad.

Furthermore, judging by the medal count, freedom really did prevail on the playing fields in London.

Free societies have not always dominated the Olympics. For example, as the chart below shows, during the 1976 Montreal Summer Games the Not Free countries won some 60 percent of the gold medals, with the Soviet Union overwhelming the United States in both the gold medal and total medal counts.

1976 Medal Count

Freedom Status

Gold Medals

Total Medals

Share of Gold

Share of Medals


(21 countries)





Partly Free

(5 countries)





Not Free

(13 countries)





Notably, the People’s Republic of China did not compete in Montreal. Nor did most African countries, many of them Not Free, due to a South Africa–related boycott. Indeed, 1976 was less a case of domination by dictatorships in general than a triumph for a particular type of totalitarian sports machine assembled by the Soviet Union and its satellite states. Especially remarkable here was East Germany, which earned a medal haul nearly equal to that of the United States. Montreal seemed to vindicate the adage that aside from repression, Soviet Communism was good at two things: building subways and winning Olympic medals.

So how to explain the change in fortune for Free countries at the Olympics? Clearly, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the wave of democracy that engulfed the satellite countries of Central Europe played a crucial role, as did the end of dictatorships in countries like South Korea, Brazil, and Argentina. But other factors may be at work as well.

First, the 1976 games were the last Olympics in which officials did not test for steroids. While Soviet bloc athletes were not alone in the use of performance-enhancing drugs, the Communists, especially the Soviets and East Germans, were ahead of everyone else in the development and systematic use of potent sports drugs. Consequently, the athletes from these countries were the most affected by the drugs’ prohibition.

Gabby Douglas - United States

Second, there were far greater opportunities for women’s competition in London than in Montreal, and democratic societies, by and large, are more likely to encourage women to participate in sports.

Om Yun Chol - North Korea

Authoritarian states still seem to dominate a handful of sports, and weightlifting stands out in this respect. Of the 15 weight divisions in men’s and women’s competition, 13 of the gold medals were won by lifters from Not Free countries, including three from North Korea.

On the whole, though, democracy supporters can and should toast the magnificent star athletes of the successful London games—Gabby Douglas, Usain Bolt, Mohamed Farah, and the rest. After all, we will soon be asked to endure the depressing spectacle of Alyaksandr Lukashenka greeting the world’s hockey greats in Minsk, and Vladimir Putin explaining why the Winter Games in Sochi were the best ever.

Nicole Greene assisted in the preparation of this post.

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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