There is no doubt Team GB’s performance at this month’s Olympic Games was outstanding. To edge ahead of the London medals total was a superb achievement, and all those who made it happen should be rightly reflecting in the afterglow.
However, it should not be overstated. The most obvious recent comparison, Australia around 2000, gives food for thought.
When I was growing up, Team GB (although it was not then so branded) typically scored five gold medals in the twenties total medals in a typical Olympic Games (five and 24 in Seoul 1988 was actually above par at the time). That was also the total typically scored by countries such as France and Italy (of equivalent population and wealth), and somewhat behind West Germany (likewise). It was also typically marginally ahead of Australia, a country with considerably fewer people but considerably greater sporting interest.
Suddenly, having been awarded the 2000 Games, Australia burst out of the blocks – at the previous games, in Atlanta in 1996, it scored nine golds and 41 medals, a marked improvement on past performance. When the time came to host the games, this rose to 16 golds and 58, and Australia was talked of as an “Olympic superpower”. Yet, astonishingly, at the subsequent games in Athens in 2004, Australia did more or less as well – in fact improving to a whopping 17 golds, while declining only slightly to 51 overall medals, still markedly better than any previous remotely comparable performance away from home.
At the time, it was thought that hosting the games had seen Australia rise not just temporarily to Olympic superpower status as hosts, but in fact permanently. It was thought the Sydney afterglow would last forever. In Beijing in 2008 there was a slight slip to 46 medals (agonisingly one behind the “Poms”), but this was still better than any pre-2000 performance. Superpower status seemed confirmed.
Yet, by 2016, Australia had slumped to just 29 medals. This is still historically respectable and is not a bad total for a country with less than half the population of England alone. However, it is just half the Sydney total and nothing like the heights reached even away from home in 1996-2008.
Team GB did something similar. In 2000 and 2004 the team improved slightly, but still only to an average ten golds and 29 medals (in line with the likes of France and Italy, as in the past). However, having been awarded the games, the team then improved dramatically even at the previous games, with an at-the-time-astonishing 19 golds and 47 medals in Beijing in 2008 for fourth place in the medals table. As hosts, performance then took another leap up to 29 golds and 65 medals and third place, and this was then retained (as was more or less the case with Australia in 2004) to secure 27 golds and 67 medals at the subsequent Olympics in 2016, good enough for second.
If Team GB were to track Australia – and that is a reasonable proposition – performance in Tokyo in 2020 would remain marginally better than it was in Beijing in 2008, but inferior either to London 2012 or Rio 2016. This would still, by historical comparison, be a good result and would probably be reported as such. However, the subsequent 2024 Olympics would be expected to see a sudden dip, still to slightly better than the historical average but markedly worse than anything since 2004, before settling back at a more typical performance from then on (which, given the wider range of sports now at the games, would probably mean around 10 golds and 30-35 medals, similar to Italy and marginally better than Australia as in the past, from 2028).
In other words, it is by no means yet established that Team GB is a true “Olympic Superpower” as some have reported. Vastly improved coaching and facilities must have had an effect, of course, but the test is whether they really put the British up with the Russians and Chinese a decade from now. There is much still to do if that is to be achieved!