By Conrad P. Kottak, PhD

At the close of the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, where "Team USA" obviously had not excelled, it was announced that New York Yankee owner George Steinbrenner had been hired by the U.S. Olympic Committee to head a panel to determine how American athletic performance on the international level could be improved. Many Americans were asking how our "free-enterprise" athletes could have been bested so often by "Communists." Had we lost our "national will to win"?

A broad and objective analysis of determinants of international sports success would ponder several general questions unlikely to be considered by Steinbrenner's panel, and would recognize that the Olympic Games provide excellent case study material for the understanding of cultural contrasts as applied to sports and the values they express. Why do countries excel at particular sports? Why do certain nations pile up dozens of Olympic medals while others win only a handful, or none at all? Cross-cultural comparison demonstrates that it isn't simply a matter of rich and poor, developed and underdeveloped, or even of the virtual "cradle-to-medal" government support that is provided to promising athletes in such places as East Germany and the Soviet Union. It isn't even a question of a "national will to win," for, although certain nations stress winning even more than Americans do, a cultural focus on winning doesn't necessarily lead to the desired result. Indeed, cross-cultural comparison shows that an overemphasis on winning may actually decrease its likelihood.

This article will examine several ways in which cultural values, society, and the media influence international sports success. As primary examples I shall use the United States and Brazil, the national giants of the western hemisphere, with populations of 240 million and 140 million respectively. These countries both have continental proportions and large, physically- and ethnically-diverse populations with roots in Europe, Africa, Asia, and Native America. Each is the major economic power of its continent. However, they offer striking and revealing contrasts in Olympic success: In the last Summer Olympics the United States won 174 medals, while Brazil managed only eight.