The Reckoning

BRICS of Gold at the Olympics? 

russia medal
Russia and the other BRICS taking a bigger bite: Pictured here is Ekaterina Ilyukhina, who won a silver medal in snowboarding giant slalom in Vancouver in 2010.  

Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images.

We all understand today that the world has changed—even the GOP can’t deny what is happening (though partisans like Robert Kagan will continue to try). The numbers don’t lie. As recently as 1999, the Group of Seven economies represented two-thirds of global GDP. In 2011, they accounted for less than half. 

These are the “known knowns,” as a certain former U.S. defense chief might say about the dynamic economic rebalancing that the planet is going through right now. But has the dramatic shift in economic power since the millennium been accompanied by a similar shift in “soft power?”

Soft power, the idea put forth by Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye, is the influence a nation accrues when the impact of such intangibles as its film industry, diplomatic corps, pop culture, sports, and scientific prowess are taken into account. 

Skolkovo, the Moscow-based think tank, along with U.S. advisory firm Ernst & Young, have devised a soft-power index in an effort to chart the “rise of the rest” in this vital realm. Not surprisingly, the United States retains its lead in these measures, bolstered by its continued dominance in film, music, fashion, and other realms of pop culture, but also as a draw for aspiring immigrants and its leadership in Nobel Prize winners and world-class universities.

But the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa)—along with some other emerging economies—are rising fast. China ranks eighth overall, behind only the United States, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Canada, Italy, and Japan. Many of those G-7 powers are trending down in the Skolkovo index, meaning China could shoot as high as fifth before long.

Right behind it, India (ranked ninth), then Russia, Brazil, Turkey, Mexico, and South Africa—have more ground to make up. But the authors predict these changes may happen with the same startling speed that saw the BRICS emerge as a global economic force.

Indeed the Olympics medal count is one of the 13 vital influencers that the index measures to gauge a nation’s place in the soft-power pecking order. So, with the London Games about to commence, can the BRICS help their case by turning in good performances?

Absolutely. Indeed, my own analysis of Olympics medal trends suggests that BRIC nations alone might soon outperform the G-7. Looking at medal counts since 1992, the BRICS continue to add to their total count at a much faster rate than the G-7. And remember, the Russian figure after 1992 no longer includes the Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Georgia, and other significant sporting powers.

Will London 2012 see the BRICS outdo the G-7 on the victory podium? Not likely. But like the more empirical question of global economic power, trends suggest the day will soon come when these five emerging powers shoulder aside the sporting giants of old.