PtG Article 27.07.2012

Olympic predictions: China can become the undisputed Olympic champion

A new prognosis suggests a major shift of power in elite sport as China seems to be on its way to being the undisputed best performing nation in the Olympic Summer Games in London.

This article is an abridged version of the original analysis, which can be downloaded here. In the original paper you can also find the tables in their full length.

In the run-up to the Olympic Games in London, many have attempted to predict how the medals will be distributed and who will be in the top position on the medal table.

The bases for analysis can include macro-societal factors such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and population, as well as geographical and climatic features. The various predictions have different outcomes, but whether they are based on expert opinions or mathematical models almost all of them predict USA to come out on top both in terms of gold medals and medals in total.

The Danish Institute for Sport Studies has made its own contribution to the flourishing field of medal predictions. This model calculates who will be where on the medals table using results from the most recent world championships in all the economic disciplines supplemented with current world rankings in sports such as tennis where world championships do not exist. The model is based on the assumption that the results in London will be similar to the results in the most recent competitions resembling the Olympics in terms of prestige and worldwide coverage. 

Table 1 shows the total number of medals at the last world championships in all Olympic disciplines and at the 2008 Olympic Games.

*This table shows only the top ten medal winners. You can find the full table with all measured countries listed in the original paper.**The calculation is prepared in a way that reflects a simulated Olympic Games. The results from world championships in the Olympic disciplies are modified according to the particpation criteria in the Olympic Games, i.e. when the number of participants in each discipline is lower in the Olympics than in world championships, then only a similar number are included from the world championship rankings.

The Danish Institute for Sport Studies supplements the normal focus on medals with a calculation of top-8 points (1. place: 8 points, 2. place: 7 points, … 8. place: 1 point). The number of top-8 points reflects the number and rankings of finalists, quarter finalists and other results close to the medal positions. 

The number of top-8 points can be argued to be a more reliable indicator of broad-based elite sport excellence than the total number of medals. This is particularly so for smaller nations where medal achievements may reflect the presence of one or two top performers and are highly dependent on marginal differences in performance, which may be a poor indicator of the general performance level.    

Table 2 shows top-8 points in all Olympic Summer Games from 1988-2008 and the latest world championships. In addition to the points total, the table also shows rankings according to the total number of top-8 points in each Olympic Summer Games.  

*This table shows only the top ten point scorers. You can find the full table with all measured countries listed in the original paper.# Did not participate

The struggle for first place: China versus USA 

In all Olympic Summer Games in the period of 1996-2004, USA ended on top of the medal table and most predictions agree that these Games will be no different. However, this is not what the results from the recent world championships tell us. If the results in London correspond with the calculations shown in table 1 and 2, China will become the top nation, not only in terms of gold medals but also in relation to the total number of medals.

This evidence indicates that a major shift of power is on its way. China seems to be on its way to becoming the undisputed best nation in Olympic Summer Games. In Beijing, China won 38 of its 51 gold medals in sports which they have tradionally dominated: badminton, diving, gymnastics, shooting, table tennis and weightlifting. In some of these sports, China is totally dominant and is expected to win all gold medals. During the last decade, China has become a medal contender in almost all sports, including sports such as boxing, rowing and canoeing, in which it was previously far behind or not even competing. 

American athletes will figure prominently among the most profilic stars of the Games. USA has traditionally won loads of medals in some of the most prestigious Olympic sports such as athletics and swimming and also more recently in artistic gymnastics. At the latest world championships 31 of its 39 gold medals, and 57 of its 83 medals in total were won in these sports. USA also dominates in basketball and women football and have good doubles players in tennis, but in other sports the medal prospects of US athletes are relatively modest. 

The host nation effect

The host nation almost always improves its standing at Olympic Games in comparison with previous Games. A large part of the host country effect originates from sustained extraordinary investments in Olympic sports, but also the effect of competing on home soil and in familiar surroundings can be an advantage.

In 2008, Great Britain had its best Olympic Games since the 1920s and ended as an unexpected no. 4 in the medal table. Since then, the results of British athletes have gradually improved in almost all Olympic sports. At the latest world championships in the Olympic disciplines, Great Britain won 61 medals, including 20 gold medals, and the performance of Great Britain was better than ever before in terms of top-8 points.

After Beijing, British sport officials considered it almost impossible to maintain this position four years later even with the home country advantage. Recently, UK Sport set a medal target of 48 which is very cautious indeed if recent results are taken into account. The expectations in the media and the general public are much higher. A recent survey shows that more than 50% expect Britain to become at least the third best nation at the Games.

Other top nations

In terms of medals, Russia is still clearly below its level in the 2000 and 2004 Olympics which is partly a mirror reflection of the rise of China. However, the top-8 points standing shows clear Russian progress. The top-8 points sum is now higher than in 2000 and 2004. Actually, Russia is not much after USA and China in this respect.  

In Beijing, the German medal tally was the worst ever with only 41 medals which is exactly half the number of medals won by German athletes in 1992. Germany will probably do better than in Beijing if the results from the latest world championships are a reliable indicator, though the fact that Germany this year only qualified a team in three of the 12 team sports indicates otherwise.  

Australia reached an impressive level in 2000 and has since experienced gradually deteriorating results, even though the Australian performance level in terms of medals and top-8 points was still quite high in the 2004 and 2008 Olympics. Even if it will probably be lower in London, it is still at a level which is much higher than what can be expected from its economic strength and the size of the population. In this respect, Australia is still the undisputed superpower in world elite sports.  This is in large part because of the Australian elite sport model, that began with the formation of the Australian Institute of Sport in 1981 together with a huge increase in financial support for elite sports and created a framework which has been more efficient in terms of talent development and elite results than any model in history apart from the former East German model. 

Japan is one of the few countries which has not experienced belt-tightening in recent years in relation to elite sports funding. The Japanese government has decided to support the (failed) bid to host the 2016 Games and the ongoing bid to host the 2020 Games with increased funding of Olympic sports. It is hoped that the consequent improvement of the international competitiveness of Japanese Olympic athletes will create enough goodwill to offset the domestic opposition in Japan against the Olympic bid which threatens to derail the bid.  

Tendencies outside the top nations

For most countries in Central and Eastern Europe the decline since the collapse of the communist regimes will deepen in London 2012 with Romania in the lead. In 1984, Romania was no. 2 on the medal table in the Los Angeles Games, which were boycotted by the other communist countries in Eastern Europe. As recent as the year 2000, Romania was still no. 12 in the top-8 points list. Then a rapid collapse followed, and at the recent world championships Romania ranked as no. 27.

Another big loser is Cuba which has experienced a sharp decline in terms of medals and top places. Cuba has been an overachiever in Olympic Games ever since 1972, primarily in boxing and track and field events. At the recent world championships in the Olympic disciplines, however, Cuba won only 13 gold medals, compared to the last five Olympic Games where Cuba won from 24 to 31 medals. This is a massive decline. In London 2012, the results may turn out to be somewhat less disastrous but Cuba will no doubt experience a significant drop in competitiveness.

Contrary to Cuba, New Zealand has experienced significant progress recently and may become the big success story of London 2012. At the most recent world championships, New Zealand won 20 medals and 183 top-8 points. This is a huge improvement compared to 2008 (9 medals, 123 points), which was one of the most successful Games New Zealand’s history. This is in spite of the fact that the most popular sports in New Zealand (rugby, cricket and netball for women) are not Olympic disciplines. Among probable reasons for its extraordinary success is a selective approach to funding, high managerial efficiency and a well-developed talent recruitment based on a highly developed school sports system. 

Read the full analysis here

Klaus Nielsen is professor at Birkbeck, University of London.Rasmus K. Storm is senior researcher at the Danish Institute for Sports Studies.