Team GB comes through
First, I’ll cover some feel-good news. In both my March article for the Significance website and my April Significance magazine article “Overcoming the doping legacy” I offered Team GB a big ray of hope for the Games by writing that the average home nation added 13 medals to those won four years before becoming host, based on the last 12 fully attended (not boycotted) Games. I predicted that Team GB would add 13 medals to the 47 won in 2008 for a total of 60 in London 2012. Actually, Team GB rewarded supporters by earning five more than I predicted - 65 to be exact. Also, for the last 10 Games available, the typical home nation won seven fewer medals four years after hosting. Based on that fact, China should have won seven less than the 100 medals won in Beijing 2008, or 93 in London. Actually, China earned 88 medals, five less than predicated but 25 more than earned in 2004, rewarding their continued success in recruiting young athletes and in using their new infrastructure as a reward for being host. We can now make the first predictions for Rio 2016. The host nation Brazil should add 13 medals to the 17 earned in London for a haul of 30 medals. Team GB should earn 65 - 7, or 58 medals in Rio, though the recent announcement that government funding for most Olympic sports (those sports that can demonstrate that they can qualify for Rio 2016) was set to continue might help British athletes better that.
Athletics: Worse than in 1988
Indeed, wonderful pictures come to mind among the varied mosaic of athletics images. Of course the seemingly ubiquitous Usain Bolt was a triple winner, with a new world record to boot in the 4x100m relay. The United States' Allison Felix delighted with her three golds and Mo Farah was a double winner in distance events for Team GB. Still, the truth must be told. In my April Significance article, I had chronicled the downturn in performances following the doping disqualification of Canada’s Ben Johnson after seemingly winning the men’s 100m in 1988. The affect of the scrutiny by the International Olympic Committee in creating the anti-drug agency WADA was visible in that about two thirds (23) of 34 events would still have been won by the 1988 gold medal winners 12 years later in 2000. In selecting those 34 events, I did not include walking events or the marathon since terrain is variable, the women’s javelin that was rebalanced after 1988, and the arbitrarily scored heptathlon and decathlon. It was understandable that removing much of the readily available steroids would degrade performances.
I was hopeful for the 2012 Games since there seemed to be a rebound after 2000. By 2008, only half (17) of the 34 events would have been won by the 1988 winners. Projecting event-by-event improvement for 2012, I created a list of just 13 events (38% of the 34) that I predicted would still be won by the 1988 champions. In fact, I was right in 11 of the 13 events (the 11 events in the top section of Table 1, dominated by women eight to three). As predicted, three iconic athletes from 1988 would win four virtual golds (Carl Lewis and Jackie Joyner-Kersee in the men’s and women’s long jump and Florence Griffith-Joyner in the 100m and 200m). A good sign for Team 2012 was that the other two of 13 were improved upon by the London winners (in the men’s 800m and the women’s 100m hurdles). Unfortunately, among the other 21 events, performances regressed compared to 2008 making the 2012 winners worse than their counterparts from 1988. The bottom part of Table 1 shows an additional eight events where the 1988 winners were superior to those of 2012 and one (the men’s high jump) where the winning performances were the same. That list of nine disappointing events is dominated by men eight to one. Altogether, the 1988 winners triumphed in 19.5/34 or 57% of the events. Mo Farah was both a double winner and double loser. He won two distance golds at London but both times were worse than in 1988. Ten of the 19 athletes in Table 1 from 1988 were from nations that no longer exist (the USSR and East Germany).
Table 1: Events Where 1988 Winning Performances Are Better Than 2012 Winning Performances
(Except for Men’s High Jump where Performances are Equal).
Why did the London performances regress? Did cool, damp nights take a toll on some event finals? Was the track not up to snuff? After all, the stadium was “disposable”. Following the Games the stadium will be taken apart and rebuilt in smaller form. The Olympic torch will disappear. It consisted of giant petals, one for each nation who will each take their petal home. Did that cost effectiveness affect the track? Those are question for which I have no answer. Maybe other analysts will tease out some truth.
The Games of 2012 are put into clearer perspective in Table 2. The percent improvement per each four year Olympiad, %I/O, was calculated for each event compared to the same event four years earlier and those %I/O values were then averaged over each of five time periods, spanning WW1, WW2, the Cold War, the Boycotts and Recovery and the Games after 1988. Data are separated for running, jumping and throwing events and then combined. The highest %I/O were for the first period. %I/O was consistent for running and jumping for the second, third and fourth periods. Throwing %I/O was similar in the second and third periods and then it dropped off in period four.
Overall improvement has declined period-by-period. Notice the dismal (generally negative) improvements for the Games of 1992-2012 whether taken collectively or taken separately towards the bottom of the table. The most recent period stands out like a sore thumb, getting sorer. All events for 1992-2012 were 0.26% worse than in 1988, in stark contrast to the fact that for all past Games, running improved by 0.63% per Olympiad, jumping by 1.35% and throwing by 2.78% for an overall gain of 1.24% per Olympiad.
Table 2: Percent Improvement per Olympiad (%I/O) for Indicated Olympic Games. No results were calculated for the men’s javelin in 1988 and women’s javelin in 2000 (javelins were rebalanced), for walks and marathons (terrain varied), and for the heptathlon and decathlon (scoring tables varied).
The best of the best
One way to identify the best winning performances is to take those that were most improved over their counterparts from 2008. Table 3 for women (W) and men (M) are arranged by %I/O. The two best female winners were better than the best male winner. The gold of golds for women goes to Sandra Perkovic of Croatia and for men to Kenya's David Rudishsa.
Table 3: The Best Women’s and Men’s Winning Performances. (WR is a world record, SB is a season best).
Rudisha has challenged Usain Bolt to a match race at 400m. That would be quite an interesting race, and reminds us of the last time two sprinters of different race distances challenged each other - Canada's 100m runner Donovan Bailey v the United States' 200m and 400m runner Michael Johnson racing over 150m.
Two of the most compelling human interest stories merged in a single event, the final of the men’s 4x400m relay. Bryshon Nellum led off for the Americans. Four years earlier, Nellum had been shot through both legs. An open question emerged as to whether he would even walk, yet there he was as an Olympian who won silver with his teammates. Double amputee Oscar Pistorius the “Blade Runner” ran the anchor leg for South Africa, winning a figurative gold medal for perseverance and determination. Those two embody the Olympic spirit and serve as an inspiration to athletes everywhere that nothing is impossible.
Looking ahead to Rio
To attempt to guess the future, it is good to revisit the lessons of the past. The five periods of Olympic history as delineated in Table 1 were clearly shaped by the hand of events outside of sport. The first seven Games featured improvements as nationalism rose before WW1; results declined in the first post war Games due to the affects of war and then rebounded in the second post war Games of 1924. The second period included five Games spanning WW2, following the exact same pattern as the first period, and ending with the second post war Games of 1952. The six Cold War Games of intensive East-West tension and competition, featured ups but no downs in improvement from 1956 until 1976. The fourth period of three Games was delineated by the instability of two boycotted Games in 1980 and 1984 followed by a rebound in 1988 to the fully attended Games. Each period experienced significant improvement in performance, sometimes because of events outside of sport and sometimes in spite of such events.
That brings us to the six recent Games marked by 24 years of downs and few ups, as anti-drug efforts have increased. It is simply not in the nature of sport to stagnate, given the past history of the modern Games. As the youth of the world assemble four years from now in Rio as called for by protocol, 28 years will have elapsed since the 20 1988 events in Table 1. Most athletes were not yet born or would have no memory of those 1988 Games. I will play the optimist and suggest that a sixth period of Olympic history is about to begin. Rio 2016 will mark a new continent and, I hope, a new beginning of honest competition with renewed and continued improvement.
May the 2016 Rio Games cast most of the 20 events in Table 1 into the dustbin of history, in the spirit of Kellum and Pistorius, who reminded us all that that nothing is impossible.