During the 17 days of the just-completed Tokyo Olympics, many American publications eschewed counting medals in ways that emphasized the winning of gold, preferring a broader tabulation that emphasized total medals won. In this manner, the United States was able to maintain a healthy lead over its biggest rival, China, throughout the Games.
In the final day or two, though, when the United States eked out the slimmest of leads over China in gold medals won as well, the emphasis in many newspaper reports suddenly shifted. Team USA had won the Summer Games by this narrower measure, and suddenly it suited the Games’ concluding narrative just fine.
Why should one bother with the medal tally from a global sports competition in a column about international affairs? The reason isn’t so much bound up in the increasingly intense direct competition between the United States and China that so strongly shapes our world, but rather in a set of broader and more subtle considerations that help make the just-concluded Games a decent proxy for the present moment of geopolitical rivalry.