Olympic Games 2012: How did the U.S. pull off winning the medal count?

LOS ANGELES, August 13, 2012 – Of all the many surprises at the Games of the XXX Olympiad, having the United States atop the medal table for the fifth straight Games is as shocking as any.

Based on the results of the most recent World Championships in each sport prior to the Games as compiled by the highly-respected Italian Olympic organizer Luciano Barra, the U.S. was projected to finish third to the Chinese (100) and Russians (79), with 78 total medals (projections did not include tennis).

Instead, the U.S. won 104 total medals, to China’s 87, followed by Russia at 82, Great Britain at 65 and Germany with 44. What happened?

United States:
London saw a startling performance by the U.S. team, winning 104 medals, with 46 golds, compared with 110 medals in Beijing, but 36 golds. It was very much the “year of the woman” for the U.S., with 58 out of the 104 total (29-14-15: 56%), in part due to men’s teams which significantly underachieved, especially boxing and gymnastics. Injuries accounted for a few other men’s medals which were missed, notably in track & field.

But the 2012 medal haul was an astonishing achievement for the only National Olympic Committee in the world which does not receive direct funding from its government. While other national sports leaders, like John Coates of Australia, wailed about the need for more government funds to increase its medal chances, the U.S. Olympic Committee stood firm with the International Olympic Committee to protect its economic base and dole out the monies it has to try and develop medal winners. And, once again, it worked.

Sure, there are storm clouds on the horizon, especially the continuing decimation of men’s collegiate sports programs in track & field, volleyball and wrestling, which continue to get cut at school after school because of pressures from Title IX requirements and football. And the U.S.’s lead in women’s sports – it won 58 compared to 49 for China and 44 for Russia – will shrink over time as the world catches up with better training, more funding . . . and more foreign athletes getting scholarships at U.S. colleges.

The U.S. does well at the Games at sports in which Americans are interested, winning 75 medals in just six sports: track & field (29), swimming (31), gymnastics (6), tennis (4), basketball (2) and volleyball (3), and 25 in the other 20 sports. That means there are many, many opportunities for improvement, if the U.S.O.C. can harness more success (raise the profile?) in other sports where they is already much promise – wrestling, shooting, fencing, taekwondo – and current failures like boxing and weightlifting.

After winning 100 medals, and an amazing 51 golds, in Beijing in 2008, China was expected to just keep on truckin’ . . . but history shows that it doesn’t happen that way.

In the “post-boycott” era from 1988 to today, the average medal count for a host country goes down by about eight medals in the succeeding Games. China won 87, a loss of 13 from their Beijing total, but still +24 from their Athens haul of 63.

It’s fascinating the look at where China won its medals. The international sports federations – the organizations which govern each Olympic sport worldwide – divide up a share of Olympic television rights fees provided by the International Olympic Committee among themselves. The split is based on a vote among the federations, dividing the 26 sports into four tiers, from the largest and most popular (track & field) to the fourth tier (the 14 smallest and least-shown sports on Olympic television broadcasts worldwide).

(The four tiers:

Tier 1: Track & Field;
Tier 2: Aquatics, Basketball, Cycling, Gymnastics, Soccer, Tennis, Volleyball;
Tier 3: Equestrian, Handball, Hockey, Rowing;
Tier 4: Archery, Badminton, Boxing, Canoe, Fencing, Judo, Modern Pentathlon, Sailing, Shooting, Table Tennis, TaeKwonDo, Triathlon, Weightlifting, Wrestling.)

Based on this division, the distribution of medals between China and the U.S. looked like this:

• Tier 1: China 5, USA 29
• Tier 2: China 37, USA 56
• Tier 3: China 1, USA 3
• Tier 4: China 44, USA 16.

(A full comparison between the sports is here.)

The Chinese have brilliantly developed dominance in sports with a lot of medals, but not much non-Olympic interest worldwide, such as badminton, shooting, table tennis and weightlifting, in which they won 28 medals in all. Already dominant in diving (10 medals), they are catching up quickly in swimming (10) and artistic gymnastics (8); those seven sports account for 56 of their 87 medals (64%).

As the Chinese continue to progress and throw money at new efforts in more sports, their medal count will continue to climb. They haven’t reached the top yet, but they aren’t far from it.

Although the Russians got off to a slow start, they collected 82 medals in all, +10 vs. their pathetic 72 medals in Beijing in 2008. Since the break-up of the Soviet sports machine after the 1992 Games in Barcelona (111 medals), Russia has been up and down, with no discernable pattern:

• 1996: 63 medals;
• 2000: 88 medals;
• 2004: 92 medals;
• 2008: 72 medals;
• 2012: 82 medals.

This is a country in transition and it’s hard to know what the future is; a major effort for Winter Games medals is underway with Russia hosting the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi; perhaps that will be the spur for a better summer effort in Rio.

Great Britain
Thanks to home cooking, rapturous crowd and a cascade of funding from the British government, the Brits scored 65 medals, the most since the 1908 Games in London, where it won 146.

Although British commentators have been wild about their success, it’s actually about average for host countries. As noted last year, the average medal count for a host country goes up by about 14 medals.

This time, the British were +18 vs. their 2008 total in Beijing of 47, a bit better than average, but considerably less – for example – that the +37 by the Chinese from 2004 to 2008. Nevertheless, it’s a great showing, and will not be repeated in Rio. If history is our guide, the British will be in the 54-58 range four years from now.

This was a great Games, one of the best in terms of competition quality, organization and technical management, and one for which the British people should be proud. For the U.S., it was a stunning triumph of effort by self-selected individuals who decided they wanted to be Olympians. And in our divided country in a highly divisive election year, that is something all Americans can be proud of.

(You can stay current with Rich’s technology, sports and Olympic commentaries by following him at www.twitter.com/RichPerelman.)

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