Decline in Australian sporting teams at Rio Olympics

Originally published in The Roar, 25 August 2016.

Since 1996, Australia has a very good record of bringing home medals in team sports at the Olympics. Many commentators have indicated their disappointment with Australian results in team sports at Rio, even though Australia did win a gold medal in women’s rugby sevens.

The Australian Sports Commission invests heavily in team sports as they regarded as historically and culturally important to Australian sport and many sports being successful in recent Olympics.

This investment means a successful medal Games can hinge on team sport results.

There were seven team sports at Rio Games and they all included men’s and women’s competitions: basketball, hockey, football, handball, rugby sevens, volleyball, and water polo. For the purposes of this analysis, I haven’t included sports with team competition medals such as gymnastics, equestrian and synchronised swimming as athletes could compete in both team and individual competitions.

So what were the final team rankings for Australian teams at Rio?

Women’s Rugby Sevens (Pearls) – Gold medal (defeated New Zealand in final)
Men’s Basketball (Boomers) – Fourth (lost bronze medal match to Spain)
Women’s Basketball (Opals) – Fifth (lost quarter final to Serbia)
Men’s Hockey (Kookaburras) – Sixth (lost quarter final to Netherlands)
Women’s Hockey (Hockeyroos) – Sixth (lost quarter final to New Zealand)
Women’s Water Polo (Stingers) – Sixth (lost quarter final to Hungary)
Women’s Football (Matildas) – Seventh (lost quarter final to Brazil)
Men’s Rugby Sevens (Thunderbolts) – Eighth (lost quarter-final to South Africa)
Men’s Water Polo (Sharks) – Ninth (failed to reach quarter finals)

Three teams had very narrow losses at the quarter final stage. Matildas lost to the host nation Brazil 6-7 on penalty kicks, Stingers lost 3-5 to Hungary in a penalty shootout and Opals lost 71-73 to Serbia. The Boomers lost to Spain in the bronze medal match 88-89.

The Australian teams struggled in the do-or-die quarter final stage. In saying that many of these teams struggled during the qualification stage losing vital games or having narrow wins and therefore ended up with difficult quarter finals.

In judging Australia’s Rio performances, one should reflect on medal performance in team sports since 1996:

1996 Atlanta: Gold – Women’s Hockey, Bronze – Women’s Basketball, Men’s Hockey, Women’s Softball (four medals)

2000 Sydney: Gold – Women’s Hockey, Women’s Water Polo; Silver – Women’s Basketball; Bronze – Men’s Hockey, Women’s Softball (five medals)

2004 Athens: Gold – Men’s Hockey; Silver – Women’s Basketball, Men’s Baseball, Women’s Softball (four medals)

2008 Beijing: Silver – Women’s Basketball; Bronze – Men’s Hockey, Women’s Softball, Women’s Water Polo (four medals)

2012 London: Bronze – Men’s Hockey, Women’s Basketball, Women’s Water Polo (three medals)

This list highlights since 1996 Australia has won three to five team medals per Games. The worrying trend was at 2012 London where no gold or silver medals were won.

The most successful countries in team sports at Rio were as follows: United States: Gold – Men’s Basketball, Women’s Basketball, Women’s Water Polo; Bronze – Men’s and Women’s Volleyball (five medals)

Brazil: Gold – Men’s Football, Men’s Volleyball (two medals)Advertisement

Serbia: Gold – Men’s Water Polo; Silver – Men’s Basketball, Women’s Volleyball; Bronze – Women’s Basketball (four medals)

Germany: Gold – Women’s Football; Silver – Men’s Football; Bronze – Men’s and Women’s Hockey, Men’s Handball (five medals)

Russia: Gold – Women’s Handball; Bronze – Women’s Water Polo (two medals)

Great Britain: Gold – Women’s Hockey; Silver – Men’s Rugby Sevens (two medals)

Italy: Silver – Women’s Water Polo, Men’s Volleyball; Bronze – Men’s Water Polo (three medals)

Spain; Silver – Women’s Basketball; Bronze – Men’s Basketball (two medals)

France: Silver – Men’s and Women’s Handball (two medals)

Canada: Bronze – Women’s Football, Women’s Rugby Sevens (two medals)

Five countries won a single gold medal: Australia (Women’s Rugby Sevens), Fiji (Men’s Rugby Sevens), Denmark (Men’s Handball), Argentina (Men’s Hockey) and China (Women’s Volleyball)

Five countries won a single silver medal: Belgium (Men’s Hockey), Netherlands (Women’s Hockey), Sweden (Women’s Football), New Zealand (Women’s Rugby Sevens) and Croatia (Men’s Water Polo)

Three countries won a single bronze medal: Nigeria (Men’s Football), Norway (Women’s Handball) and South Africa (Men’s Rugby Sevens).

In all 23 countries won medals in Rio and there were 42 medals available. Two countries won five medals: United States and Germany. Serbia had a very successful Games winning four medals. The host nation Brazil won two gold medals and finally won the men’s football competition.

In watching and reviewing Australia’s team performances, I felt that European teams were better in the clutch matches. I wonder if it was because these teams play together more often due to their location and the fact that they have to often qualify through intense European competitions.

For instance, the Boomers and Opals only need to beat New Zealand to qualify for the Olympics and only play intensively at the World Championships. Football and volleyball teams have difficult qualifications through Asia and a result the Olyroos and Volleyroos missed out.

Australia should continue to invest in Olympic team sports as they are part of our national sporting psyche. They are just important as the Australian men’s and cricket teams, Diamonds, Kangaroos and Wallabies. However, Olympic team sports are increasingly having difficulty in obtaining the best talent due to the abovementioned sports and the AFL.

Australians should remember that winning an Olympic team medal is often more difficult than winning the Cricket, rugby league or Netball World Cups due to the number of high quality teams from around the world competing and the qualification process.

There will be two new teams sports added to the Tokyo 2020 program – women’s softball and men’s baseball. Australia has a strong Olympic record in these sports. With the addition of these sports and little more luck at the pointy end of the competition, Australia hopefully with have an improved team performance outcome in 2020 Tokyo.

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