The modern Olympics movement enshrines a paradox: It promotes competition among nations as a means toward international peace. The explicit idea behind the 1896 revival of the ancient Greek tradition of quadrennial games was to replace war with other forms of international rivalry. It never succeeded by that measure — the 1916, 1940 and 1944 Games were canceled on account of world wars, for instance, while the 1972 Olympics witnessed the killing of members of the Israeli team.

But the idea that international competition can be channeled through athletic prowess continues to resonate, thanks to the simple, if naive, intuition that a country can prove its worth by winning medals — an easily quantifiable metric of national achievement. This is the premise that inspires less-prominent nations to celebrate when they win a single medal, even in a minor sport. But it also leaves Americans anxious if our inevitably massive pile of gold, silver and bronze doesn’t grow fast enough; we’re convinced that it portends something bad, even if we’re not quite sure what.

That sentiment isn’t entirely misguided: There is a fuzzy link between podium position and success on the international stage. States care about Olympic prestige in part because their leaders believe that higher status will help them get their way in world politics. The Harvard professor Joseph Nye popularized an influential version of this concept, calling it “soft power.” Unlike hard power, such as wealth or military strength, soft power derives from “the attractiveness of a country’s culture, political ideals, and policies.”

The 2021 Tokyo Olympics, however, show that the relationship between what a country’s elites want from the Games and what their athletes are willing to provide is far from straightforward. The nature of power in international relations has more to do with setting the terms of debate rather than piling up gold medals — and sometimes that means a system that allows dominant competitors to withdraw can be more exemplary than one that forces them into the arena. 

It hasn’t always been that way. Far from quelling international rivalry, the Games have long placed it at center stage. Cold War antipathy between the Soviet Union and the United States extended to the balance beams and beyond, eventually leading to dueling boycotts of the 1980 Moscow Games and the 1984 Los Angeles Games. Other struggles more directly reflected international tensions. When the Hungarian water polo team played against the Soviet Union at the 1956 Games, just weeks after Soviet troops crushed Hungary’s anti-U.S.S.R. revolution, the match turned literally bloody.

More recently, even hosting the Olympics has emerged as a way for countries to showcase their status, as with the 2008 Beijing or 2016 Rio Games. As scholars of sport competition Mike Dennis and Jonathan Grix write, a country’s decision to stage such a “mega-event” is “very much a political decision, with the sporting aspect a distant second,” trumped by “the perceived international prestige and credibility that can be gained.” With the cost of hosting a modern Olympics running into the tens of billions of dollars, the price tag for this form of soft power rivals that of an aircraft carrier.

 For Nye, soft power is evident in the influence of U.S.-inspired institutions like the World Bank and the United Nations. Along with the spread of American culture more generally, they supposedly persuade other countries to want what the United States wants, helping U.S. leaders achieve their goals without having to revert to more direct but less legitimate forms of hard power. Chinese leaders who sent their children to Stanford or Harvard, Nye conjectured, would have more realistic views of the United States. He identified arrogant or calamitous foreign policy decisions, like the invasion of Iraq, as liabilities for soft power. Yet soft power could also be harmed by domestic issues, such as gun violence or racial segregation (although Nye, writing in 2004, identified that as a problem of the past).

The era of U.S. hegemony at the Summer Olympics maps neatly onto the era of Nye-style soft power. From the 1992 Barcelona Games (with the NBA-led “Dream Team”) to the 2016 Rio Games of the Final Five and Michael Phelps, the United States dominated the competition — not taking first in every event, to be sure, but far outstripping its performance in earlier Olympics in which the Soviets took part. (In the 1976 and 1988 summer games, the United States won fewer gold medals than either the Soviet Union or East Germany.)

Leaders hope that the prestige accumulated through athletic prowess can reap them greater support at home and more legitimacy internationally. Aspiring powers can use excellence to demonstrate their independence and standing. For East Germany, Dennis and Grix write, athletic superiority enabled the country to carve out an identity separate from both West Germany and the Soviet Union. Nations at the top of the international system, by contrast, may view such competitions less as opportunities than as threats to their dominance — and will spend lavishly to defend their position.

Even if the United States tops the medal count this year again, though, it seems unlikely to do so in a way that will allow the Biden administration to secure its policy goals as easily as the traditional notion of soft power would suggest. Many of the most dramatic stories from this Olympics have less to do with victories and more to do with the context of the competition. The disqualification of Sha’Carri Richardson from the U.S. track and field team because of marijuana use sparked a vigorous debate over the racialized nature of anti-drug laws. Then, of course, there was Simone Biles’s withdrawal from the women’s gymnastics team final. If measuring soft power is a simple question of counting medals, then Biles’s decision was a blow to U.S. prestige — not least because it may have allowed the Russian Olympic Committee to win gold in the team event. (Notably, Russia’s own soft power doesn’t seem to have been meaningfully affected by its strange classification in recent Olympics, since everyone knows whom the “Russian Olympic Committee” athletes really represent.)

Yet reducing Biles’s calculations to whether they hurt the medal count seems wrong from the standpoint of international politics (much less in terms of compassion for an athlete who was victimized by the organizations overseeing U.S. women’s gymnastics, which failed to protect her and others from a serial sexual abuser). The fact that Biles was free to put her health first rather than jeopardizing it in pursuit of prestige also says something about the nation she represents at the Games — as does the vitriol trained on her by American conservatives and others for her choice.

These examples show that soft power is not as easily directed as D.C. wonks like to think. Presidents and other officials can’t just aim soft power at a problem the way they might order an airstrike. Those who produce soft power — from athletes to actors to activists — can also wield it on their own. And they will not always want to advance the interests of the U.S. government when they do so. Justice and official interests will conflict, and as free people, rather than spokespeople, prominent figures can speak even inconvenient truths. As Foreign Policy’s Allison Meakem pointed out, the voices of figures like Biles and Naomi Osaka are heard far more clearly in debates than those of official Olympic organizations. Indeed, these athletes might be heard most clearly when they don’t win the accolades we expect of them — whether by choice, accident or institutional fiat.

If their actions don’t advance official interests, they still might aid the national interest. Just as last summer’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations helped catalyze protests around the world (much as the #MeToo movement had done before), these incidents and their accompanying debates set the global conversation. The ability to initiate and drive international dialogue has been best described by Chinese thinkers as “discourse power” — a soft-power spinoff defined by a recent Atlantic Council report as the “power to set agendas in the international arena by influencing the political order and realigning other countries’ ethics and values.”

Where discourse power remains aspirational for Beijing, the vast, sprawling, competitive nature of open societies constantly sets new debates. That bottom-up process of raising tough questions may not fully jibe with Nye’s vision of soft power as a resource for officials, who often prefer to paper over differences rather than air them. Yet it is how open societies pose their toughest challenge to closed societies and their message that security and prosperity require stability — and silence — above all. Indeed, pushing beyond simplistic narratives of competition can do more to enhance soft power. As the historian Teasel Muir-Harmony shows in her book “Operation Moonglow,” the Apollo project reaped its greatest value for the United States when it was reframed from a nationalistic contest to an endeavor “for all mankind.”

The Olympics, then, are most valuable for open societies not when their teams win the most medals, but simply because they provide a forum for open competition in the first place. The Games are far from perfect, as anyone familiar with the history of Olympic corruption and appeasement of dictators would recognize. Nor is it guaranteed that the resolution of every debate will be to the tastes of Western-style liberals. Still, allowing for competition means that politics — like the Olympics — remains full of surprises, and thus on the side of those who are used to competing in the first place. The ultimate soft-power move is to let influence speak for itself. 

Twiiter: @profmusgrave