The last week has seen some of the usual innate British cynicism kick in with regard to the potential of matching the 2012 “Team GB” in future Olympics. There is good and bad news there.
The future is, in fact, fairly predictable, because the Olympics consists of over 300 events which may be reasonably expected to average themselves out.
So here, in 2012, is my prediction: around 53 medals in 2016, 49 in 2020, then a slump to around 38 in 2024 (assuming the number of events overall remains relatively stable).
Even that 2024 figure would be well ahead of 2004, and would constitute a “settling” at an average still above that which was typical prior to the announcement, in 2005, that London was hosting the games.
It isn’t rocket science. Australia’s total medals haul was typically level (generally slightly behind, but not much) with GB’s in modern-era Olympics (allowing for boycotts and such like which could skew some outcomes). Upon the announcement that Sydney would host the games, Australia’s performance immediately leaped in 1996 to similar to GB’s in 2008; in 2000 Australia won 58 medals as host (to GB’s 65); then Australia dipped back to around its 1996 level for two more Olympics before dropping to 35 in 2012. This is still ahead, it is worth noting, of where it was before it earned hosting rights (it was on the equivalent of around 20-30 allowing for boycotts and fewer events previous to the hosting announcement).
So GB’s plain will no doubt be similar. There are sports where GB will in fact improve – probably swimming – just as Australia has done (for example in athletics and sailing). Others will see a decline as other countries take on coaching methods and steal ahead on technology (probably cycling, for example).
The psychology of it all is fairly obvious too. Knowing, seven years beforehand, that you are to host the games encourages people to participate in sport with the goal of being home olympians; another (but slightly lesser) spurt is provided on the back of having hosted and been inspired by the games; gradually over time the whole thing drifts into the rear-view mirror, but an overall higher standard of performance is nevertheless maintained thanks to better facilities and indeed intergenerational transfer of good practice.
We may see other countries achieve similar spurts – if Japan were to host in 2020, or France in 2024, for example – which would knock GB down the medals table rankings even if it were to maintain Beijing-level performances. That is to be expected. Nevertheless, we can already predict that twelve years from now we will be analysing where it all went wrong for Team GB – yet there will also be a minority of bright sparks pointing out they are still outperforming where they were a generation previously…!