The 2012 Olympics and the deep sporting culture of Britain

Robert Henderson

The  breadth of British sporting involvement is readily shown by the performances in the 2012 Olympics.

The  final medal tally for Britain  was  65 – 29 Gold,  17 silver and 19 bronze. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/2012/aug/05/team-gb-every-olympic-medallist). These were obtained across 17 sports, more than half the sports on offer at the Olympics .

There were  eleven  events in which gold (and often silver and gold as well) was won: athletics, boxing, canoeing, cycling , equestrian events, rowing, sailing, shooting, taekwondo, tennis and , triathlon.

In addition,   there were six events  in which only silver or bronze  was won:  diving, gymnastics , hockey, judo, modern pentathlon , and swimming .

The only sports where a medal was not achieved were: badminton, basketball, beach volleyball,   fencing, football, handball, table tennis,   volleyball, water polo, weightlifting, wrestling, a total of  12.

By way of comparison, the USA, a mature sporting super-power which  headed the medals table with 104,  also won medals in these seventeen sports:  athletics, swimming,  rowing, shooting, diving, football (women), taekwondo, tennis, cycling,  beach volleyball, water polo, gymnastics, fencing,  judo, boxing,  basketball,  and archery. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/datablog/2012/aug/10/olympics-2012-list-medal-winners)

In the history of the Olympics (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/olympics/8660580/Olympic-Medal-Table.htm)  t he figure of 29 golds has only been exceeded by the USA,  the USSR/Russian Federation, China, East Germany and  a unified Germany (33 in 1936 and 1992, the first Olympics after German reunification when they benefitted from the immense resource which was the East German Olympic machine).

The USA and Britain are both  mature sporting  first world nations so  it is reasonable to link overall performance with population.  The USA has approximately five times the population of Britain with 311 million (http://geography.about.com/od/obtainpopulationdata/a/uspopulation.htm) against Britain’s 63 million (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/greenpolitics/population/9403215/Census-2011-population-surges-by-3.7-million-in-a-decade.html).  If Britain had the same ratio of medals to population as the USA they would have captured 325 medals.

The jibe made against some sports that they provided  cheap medals because the sport is only practised seriously by relatively few countries is not the  knock-down argument its proponents imagine.   The most popular Olympic sports such as athletics may nominally have national associations of something approaching the total number of nations in the UN (around 200), but  that does not mean most of the nations who have national associations are serious players.  Being generous there are no more than thirty  serious athletic nations and many of those like Jamaica (sprints) or Kenya (distance running) concentrate almost exclusively on a small part of the athletics programme.  Even the most popular and widely played sport in the world, football,  is far from being a sport with depth at the highest level. In the 82 years since the  first World Cup in 1930 only eight nations – Uruguay, Italy, Germany,  Brazil, England,  Argentina,  France, Spain  – have won the cup.   Arguably the best pointer to the strength of a sport is generally  the number of developed countries taking it seriously.

There is also the question of the difficulty of a sport. A good example is the triathlon.  This involves a 1,500 metre swim, followed by a 43 kilometre bike ride and ending with a 10,000 metre run. The three events take place  without  a break between events.

Although a sport growing in popularity participation is tiny compared with athletics, the winner of the triathlon gold medal in the 2012 Olympics, Alistair Brownlee,   ran a time for the triathlon 10,000 metres which was only 97 seconds less than the time run by the winner  – Mo Farah – of the 10,000 metres  run in the Olympic stadium. Had not Brownlee slowed to almost a walk for the last 150 yards or so when he was so far ahead that he could afford to slow and take the prolonged applause of the crowd he would probably have been very close with Farah’s time.

The two times are not strictly comparable.  Farah  had not swum 1,500 metres and cycled 43 kilometres before he ran 10,000 metres.  Then there is the difference between running  round a stadium track and  running on a course which is cross-country  and varies considerably in its topography.  Running in a stadium will  involve sophisticated race tactics because of the inhibitions of the track with many runners clustered together . Running on a cross country course   removes the press of runners close together  because the track is wider and the standard of the runners more variable than would be the case in a track 10,000 metres. Against that the cross-country course will demand regular changes of approaches as the terrain changes and  is not uniformly flat.    It is not unreasonable to suspect that he would be a top class track distance runner very quickly  if he put his mind to it.  It could be that Brownlee , with some track training, would be faster over a  track 10,000 metres than  Farah despite there being far fewer triathletes of quality than track distance runners .

Sports also make vastly different psychological demands on participants.  Some demand far more physical courage than others, most obviously combat sports such as boxing and less obviously activities such as cricket (try facing a truly fast bowler),  pole vaulting, horse riding and  cycling where serious falls and crashes are a constant possibility.  Conversely, there are sports such as golf which require more moral courage because the game is played so much in the mind. It could be that the genetically determined distribution of personality amongst human beings make one type of personality far more common than another.  That could mean there are far fewer potential  participants suited to  one sport than are suited to another.

Just as personality differences in a population may be determine how many people are suited to a sport so may differences of physique.  For example,   if top class high jumpers have to be abnormally tall, there may be a relatively small number of people who could potentially become high jumpers.

The will be weaker sports in the Olympics but the large majority  can make a strong case for being anything but a soft option.

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