Olympic medals

Quantity or Quality? Thoughts on medal targets, part one

“But in truth, should I meet with gold or spices in great quantity, I shall remain till I collect as much as possible, and for this purpose I am proceeding solely in quest of them.”
Christopher Columbus
A question I get asked quite frequently is, “What do you think Team GB’s goal should be for the next Olympics?” My answer has varied over time. I was asked this again last week – by a high ranking Olympic official and I thought it worth sharing some thoughts about the argument as I believe it tells a lot about the climate, the political pressures and the zeitgeist of the country – (yes readers zeitgeist), you’ve got to know what’s relevant!
There are two major options that I will argue the case for in the next few blogs. The first is to go for ‘quantity’ with more medals, the second is to shun ‘more and go for higher ‘quality’ medals. Both standpoints are interesting and are worth unpacking. This week I will explore the case for more medals.
Back to the question of “What next for Team GB?” Post-Rio – I had only given it one mischievous thought – first place. That’s right I thought Team GB should brashly aim to take first on the medal table. When you think about how you would usurp such a super-superpower such as USA, you’d start by asking where do they get their medals from? Answer track & field and swimming. Then who wins their medals? Answer multi-medallist. Matching this would be a sensible place to start, diverting resources to finding and supporting athletes who might be able to multi-medal in these sports. Not only do you get more success from the multi-medallist, but if you start being more competitive in the sports that USA are winning most of their medals in, then you would take medals off them. Easier said than done and this is not a strategy you can hatch over one or even two cycles, maybe a 10 to 15 year project and therefore funding.
To put the more medals approach into context, TeamGB were the first nation to win more medals after a home Olympics; the first nation to win more medals at five successive Olympic games (1996 to 2000, 2004, 2008, 2012, 2016); and it won more medals across more events than any other nation. More medals has been the flavour of the system’s goal from being rubbish in 1996 and in particular since 2005 when London was awarded the games. (I’ll focus on Olympic for now, as Paralympic is a more nuanced argument as it benefits from a secondary resurgence post-2012)
The chart above shows the percentage change in medals from host to post (hosting the games to the games after). You can adjust your thinking for USA as they are routinely at the top. I haven’t included Greece on the graph as they didn’t just fall of the cliff post-hosting, but burrowed into the Earth’s core with an 800% drop in medal count – and frankly it just ruined the axis on the graph.
The five main themes/reasons discussed for a greater quantity of medals are;
1. Magnitude. The medal table is absolute. There are some fussy budgies out there who will argue the medal table should be ordered in the total number of medals as the only criteria for ranking countries, rather than the more widely accepted, rank by golds, then silvers, then bronze, then a separate column showing the total medals for additional information – but this argument normally comes out when it favours a particular nation. The medal table shows the pre-eminence of a country’s sporting system. Just in the same way that a league table for a football league, doesn’t lie (well it can, but that’s another blog discussion). Generally, the teams sit where they should do. There are some follow up conversions of the medal table, such as medal per GDP (economic wealth) or per population (size) or per investment (cost per medal) – but these are post-hoc adjustments to try to estimate effectiveness or normalise due to major factors. The bottom line is – the greater the number of medals the greater the raw mass of achievement
2. Breadth. More medals across more sports shows a range and diversity of sporting interests in a country. This might be argued to be a surrogate measure of sporting diversity and thus health of a nation’s interest. This argument is a flimsy one compared to participation figures or overall physical activity and health metrics, both of which show poor correlations with sporting achievements, absolute or range. However, if one of legacy pieces hopes for role-models for sports participation, then there is some strength in this perspective. If you have Olympic medallists in each of the 28 sports then arguably you have a stronger examples for your aspiring athletes to look up to. It would also show emerging performers that it is possible within their system.
3. Momentum. At the games there is always an adage thrown around that when a nation waits for it’s first medal there is a built up of tension that luck is against them, and finally when an athlete secures some medallion-based hardware then the rest of the team sees it as a relief and can get on with the job. I think this is a load of rubbish, full of superstitions and cliche. However, I will give credence to the concept of being on a winning team, full of people who you know know how to win, then do win and their behaviours and mindset can rub off through vicarious
learning. The upshot for the viewing public, politicians and officials is looking in and thinking, “Wow, another medal, I can’t keep up” conversely for the competition, looking in and hearing the same China, USA, GB national anthems is annoying to say the least. While there is an infectious greediness that flares when the medals keep ticking in, there is also a particularly perky and quirky interest – to hear that, “We’ve got an athlete in the fencing, I’m not sure what type of sword they have, but they’ve got a chance of a medal!”. Admittedly this is a transient interest to the less popular sports and such genuine achievement can get swamped by the influx of success stories (e.g. I could name all 5 gold medals for Team GB at the Barcelona games in 1992, but couldn’t name half the gold winners from Rio)
4. Seizing the opportunity. The case of every nation en route to hosting the games shows a system that is duty bound to perform. A host nation that doesn’t perform particularly well (Canada 1976 as the prime example) takes the gloss off the games and the spectacle for the home crowd. A Cathy Freeman, Jess Ennis, Michael Johnson moment or 10 are just something to behold for the world of sport, with a home crowd going crazy for their particular darling. Therefore, the host nation is building 7 years out, and will undoubtedly increase their preparation in the ‘one before’ they host and despite the graph above, most of the time the ‘one after hosting’ will be higher than average. So nations are compelled to invest and invest widely, rather than pin their hopes on one or two athletes. In a world where economic pressures for stability are craved, where political wins are few and far between under increasing media scrutiny – high performance sport might seem an indulgence but on a global scale it is a ‘relatively’ cheap success story
5. Reputation. International standing is almost certainly enhanced as a consequence of a strong showing at the games. Sport is one of the few international languages of shared appreciation. The number of conversations I have had with colleagues around the world, where they have enquired about “What’s going on in the UK?”, indicates a ‘buzz’ of interest and intrigue around a nation’s activity. Equally, I hear, with no surprise, that colleagues in Japan are very focussed at the moment for the games in 2020, as are those colleagues in nearby, rivalling sporting heavyweights China and Korea! Gone are the days of sporting success being seen as a global indicator of general success of a country as it was in the 1960s-1980s cold war era. But no doubt waves of success for nations that invest in the more medals approach give a boost to the nations esteem, sense of self-worth and global interest.
So a ‘more medals’ approach gives a sense of;
  • mass dominion
  • magnitude of interest
  • standing in the world
  • systematic preeminence
  • a virile juggernaut oomphing its way forward, with its might and muscularity, analysing competitors into a corner ready to vanquish all before them (sorry I got carried away)
So you have to ask is this what you want? As member of the spectating public, as someone working in it, as a serving politician at the top, making the calls, assigning the budgets – is this your aspiration for what sport represents in your country? Not many nations would turn this down for at least a period of time, so it is indeed to attractive. As I was nit-picking away at areas for improvement for some GB teams, one coach from foreign lands commented to me, “You are part of a winning team, you don’t realise how incredible that is!” A helpful reminder that sometimes you don’t see the riches when you are in it. But does the more medals approach possess elan, does it possess vim and vigour, are the moments all memorable, and is it sustainable?
“Culture is perishing in overproduction…in the madness of quantity.”
Milan Kundera

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