By Greg Blood
Prior to the Tokyo Olympics, I detailed the support that the Australian Government through the AIS provided to the Australian Olympic and Paralympic teams. It is worthwhile examining the results and outcomes of Tokyo Olympics and how improvements can be made for the 2032 Brisbane Olympics.
I was so pleased the Olympics proceeded – five years commitment by athletes to performing at their best and the eight years work undertaken by Japan to host the Olympics and Paralympics needed to be rewarded. It was disappointing that spectators particularly Japanese were able to attend and appreciate athlete performances.
The Australian team has moved back to the level of the 2004 and 2008 Olympics in terms of gold and total medals. Both these teams in many ways had the legacy impact of the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
It is important to review the Australian team in terms of medals, personal bests, competitiveness in Olympic sports, inspirational sporting moments, athlete journeys to the Olympics and planning and management of the team.
Breakdown of Olympic performances from 1992 to 2020 – the 1992 Olympics was the start of the Australian Government’s increased investment in Olympic sports.
Tokyo Olympics medal analysis:
- Number of medal sports = 15. Highest was 20 at 2000 Olympics. Two new sports assisted in increasing the number of medal sports – surfing and skateboarding. Sports from Rio that did not medal in – archery, modern pentathlon, shooting and rugby sevens. History demonstrates a high number medal sports leads to 4-6th place on medal table.
- Australia won gold medals in 6 sports. The highest was at 2000 Olympics with 11 but subsequent Olympics – 7 in 2004, 7 in 2008, 5 in 2012 and 6 in 2016. Has the current funding model limited the range of sports than can win gold medals?
- Sports that have medalled at every Olympics 1996-2020 : athletics, canoeing, cycling, rowing and swimming.
- Medals between men and women were evenly divided –
- Women – 10 gold, 3 silver, 11 bronze = 22
- Men – 7 gold, 4 silver, 11 bronze = 2
- Mixed – 2 bronze
- Home Olympics advantage – Japan was 3rd on medal table with 58 medals (27 gold, 14 silver, 17 bronze) increase from 2016 Olympics where they were 6th with 41 medals (12 gold, 8 silver, 21 bronze). Great Britain had a small decline with 65 medals (22 gold) as opposed to 67 Medals (27 gold) at 2016. Their high performance system is still strong and well funded after London 2012.
- Top ten nations are very consistent – United States, China, Japan, Great Britain, Russia, Australia, Netherlands, France, Germany and Italy. European nations most likely will be stronger at the next Olympics in Europe – 2024 Olympics in Paris. Strong European nations were most likely impacted by COVID as it has had devasting waves in Europe. Final medal table.
The Australian Olympic Committee has provided a detailed breakdown in terms, of medals, participation, gender and records.
Funding v Medals
The AIS funded sports on their likelihood to win medals – individual athletes, teams and national significance of sport. AIS investment to NSOs for period 2016-17 to 2020-21.
Below are listed the top ten funded sports in order of their funding.
- Swimming: 37 Events – 9 Gold, 3 Silver, 9 Bronze = 21 medals
Swimming in previous Olympics has gone into with many world record holders but this has not always translated into medals. Swimming had its best Olympics in terms of medals – previous bests were since Athens 2004 (7 gold, 15 medals) and Beijing 2008 (6 gold, 20 medals). 1956 Olympics produced 8 gold but these Olympics were in a very different era. There were three dual individual gold medallists – Emma McKeon, Kaylee McKeown and Ariarne Titmus and relays medalled in six out of seven relays including two gold
The movement of the Australian Swimming Trials closer to the Olympics – five weeks – looks like it had a positive impact with athletes holding or improving their form and going into the Olympics with confidence. Well done to Australian athletes and coaches in making this transition be successful.
.My main concern is that only two NSW swimmers (Se-Bom-Lee & Matthew Wilson) )were selected in 2021 – the Campbell sisters moved back to Queensland in 2020 and Wollongong’s Emma McKeon had been based in Queensland for many years.
- Rowing: 14 Events – 2 Gold, 2 Bronze = 4 medals
Rowing’s decision to have separate national training centre for men (Canberrra) and women (Penrith) looks like a great initiative with men’s and women’s teams performing strongly.
- Cycling: 22 Events – 1 Gold, 2 Bronze = 3 medals
Track cycling always has high expectations particularly after the 2004 Olympics but they had a disappointing Olympics. Unfortunate mechanical failures, lead up illness to former world champion Matthew Glaetzer, the retirement of Stephanie Morton in 2020 and several athletes stretching their retirement plans. It looks like the base of track cycling needs to be rebuilt.
- Sailing: 10 Events – 2 Gold = 2 medals
Sailing delivered golds where expected but other crews struggled to be in medal contention. It will be interesting to see the impact of retirement of Victor Kovalenko (7 gold medals from 2000 to 2020) will have on the Australian Sailing Team.
- Athletics: 48 Events – 1 Silver, 2 Bronze = 3 medals
Historically athletics wins 2 to 4 medals, so 3 it was on par with previous results. Athletics certainly ignited the Australia’s public interest in the Olympics – with the non-medal performances of Rohan Browing, Peter Bol, Stewart McSweyn, Linden Hall and Jessica Hull. In fact, the athletics team was ranked tenth on the top ten placings table.
Rohan Browing’s 100m semi-final and Peter Bol’s final were the most watched events on Channel Seven’s Olympics coverage.
- Hockey: 2 Events – 1 Silver = 1 medal
The Kookaburras were so close to the gold medal and the Hockeyroos after a disrupted leadup were undefeated in pool games and narrowly lost to India in the quarter final.
- Basketball: 2 Events – 1 Bronze = 1 medal
Boomers delivered the long awaited Olympic medal – bronze after coming fourth four times previously. The Opals appeared to struggle after the late withdrawal by Liz Cambage.
- Canoeing: 16 Events – 2 Gold, 1 Bronze = 3 medals
Canoeing delivered on the base of their expectations – Jess Fox finally achieved the elusive gold medal and the Men’s K2 1000m
- Water Polo: 2 Events – no medals
The Stingers finished fifth and the Sharks did not reach the quarter finals even after defeating the highly ranked Croatia in the pool games
- Shooting: 15 Events – no medals
Shooting has a strong history in trap and skeet events but the best placing was Laetisha Scanlan and Penny Smith fourth and sixth in the final
- Equestrian: 6 Events – 1 Silver, 1 Bronze = 2 medal
The eventing team has a strong Olympic medal history and delivered with two medals. The jumping team was impacted by the late removal Jamie Kermond due to a doping violation
- Triathlon: 3 Events – no medals
Since 2000, the Australian men have never medalled and the women have won 1 gold, 2 silver and 2 bronze. Former leading triathlete has raised concerns about the direction of the sport in Australia.
There is a good review of UK Sport funding and Tokyo medals.
It is difficult to estimate the impact of COVID on Australian athletes and teams. Many leading nations had more severe waves of COVID in 2020 and 2021. How it impacted Australian athletes includes:
- Many national teams had severely limited international competition in the last 18 months – Boomers, Opals, Stingers, Sharks, Kookaburras, Hockeyroos, Mataildas, Olyroos and Rugby Sevens. This most likely would have had an impact in ‘crunch’ games.
- Swimming and athletics performed very well even though they lacked international competition. The ability to train most of the last 18 months in a COVID free environment looks like to helped these sports. Constant international travel can have an impact on performances.
- Sports such as track cycling, shooting, diving and triathlon looked like they struggled and this could again be put down to their limited international competition. Several divers missed out on qualifying events due to COVID safety concerns.
- The nature of the Olympic village in Tokyo where athletes arrived at the last moment and left immediately after their events most likely led to a stronger focus on performance due to less distractions.
- The AIS through its Gold Medal Ready program and funding for NSO Athlete Wellbeing staff most likely led to Australian athletes being more resilient during the COVID pandemic.
In 2018, Australia successfully hosted the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast. The Australian team overwhelming led the medal table with swimming and athletics performing very well. Swimmers such as Ariarne Titmus, Emma McKeon , Jack McLoughlin , boxer Harry Garside and track and field athletes Nicola McDermott and Kelsey-Lee Barber would have gained great confidence in performing well at this major multi sport event.
The Commonwealth Games are very important stepping stone for Australian athletes in their progression to the Olympics.
After the Rio Olympics, the AIS and AOC no longer published medal expectations due to the Rio team indicating that these placed pressure on them. Gracenote’s medal prediction on 16 July 2021 for Australia was – 16 gold, 12 silver, 12 bronze for 9th place. So Australia bettered this prediction.
The lack of AIS and AOC media predictions most likely dampened the Australian public medal expectations. But NSOs and their athletes would have had a sense of expectation as AIS funding is still strongly related on the ability to win medals.
Team sports are admired and important in Australian sport . Whether it is the national cricket teams, Wallabies/Wallaroos, Matildas/Socceroos, Boomers/Opals etc. It is why it is important to invest in Olympic team sports. The number of team medals is limited but it should be looked at in terms of the number of athletes that take home a team medals.
At Tokyo Olympics, twelve Boomers and eighteen Kookaburras took home medals. So investment in team sports is more than one or two medals.
The Matildas semi final match against the Sweden led to it having undisputed crown as the nation’s most watched women’s sporting side with 2.32 million viewers.
There has been an increase in professional sports over the years – basketball, football, indoor and beach volleyball, road cycling, golf, tennis and surfing. In many ways, the Australian high performance system does not have a direct impact on the preparation of these athletes for the Olympics – their preparation is determined by professional circuits or teams. This is the case for other nations. The performance of these athletes at the Olympics is can be compromised or in some cases their withdrawal .
The Boomers showed that developing a strong culture over time can overcome issues such as Ben Simmons unavailability or the serious injury to Aron Baynes during the competition.
Planning and Management
Who would want to be a sport administrator during the COVID pandemic? Well, many Australian sport administrators have stood up and ensured their sport has been well managed through this testing and uncertain environment.
Chef de Mission Ian Chesterman emotional wrap up press conference highlighted how difficult the last year has been for Olympic sport administrators. From my perspective, the medical planning under the leadership of the AIS Dr David Hughes ensured that the team lived in a COVID safe environment. In addition, in the last year the AIS has developed world leading COVID safe guidelines for Australian sport.
Time Zone & Heat Management
Tokyo Olympics were held in a similar time zone for Australia. So travel to the Tokyo was short and negligible jet lag – important due to COVID guidelines that led to athletes arriving just before their events in most cases. Beijing Olympics offered similar advantages
Most Summer Olympics are held in hot and humid condiitions – Tokyo was no different. It was my observation that Australian athletes coped with the conditions. AIS Tokyo Heat Project would have greatly assisted our athletes.
After working at the AIS for nearly 30 years, I found that culture is a critical ingredient of high performance achievement – everyone pushing themselves to be better with the same vision. I’m distant from the Tokyo 2020 Team but it was apparent there was a great culture. Chef Mission Ian Chesterman’s has provided an insight into the team culture.
Athlete Journeys & Camaraderie
This is the last review topic but the most important outcome of the Olympics and Paralympics. High performance sport for me is all about the journeys of athletes – what they overcome to succeed or get to the starting line and how they behave in intense competition.
There were so many Australian examples at Tokyo – Matthew Glatzer overcoming thyroid cancer, Peter Bol’s family escape from Sudan, Kelsey-Lee Roberts overcoming a form slump, Ariarne Titmus family move from Launceston to Brisbane, Kaylee Mckeown loss of her father in the preceding year, Emma McKeon swimming family journey. There are so many stories that provide insights into overcoming adversity or commitment- this is something that many Australians needed at the moment as we are encountering significant impact of COVID.
The camaraderie was a constant during the Olympics. Some notable examples for me were Cedric Dubler’s support for Ash Moloney in the decathlon, the Boomers team spirit and the young skateboarders enthusiasm for each other.
Ten of the best Australian stories of the Tokyo Olympic Games by The Guardian highlights these stories.
“Maintaining the Momentum” to 2032
Australian sport now needs to develop its high performance plan for 2032. Evidence from the last home Olympics – Sydney 2000 highlights the need to have a long term, well funded and sustained plan – that was the Olympic and Paralympic Preparation Program.
My thoughts on how Olympic high performance sport in Australia can be sustained and improved in the next 11 years:
Corporate philanthropy of Olympic sports. Swimming, rowing, volleyball and artistic swimming benefitted greatly from Gina Reinhart’s estimated $10m funding. It would be great to see those on Australia’s rich list take a more active interest in Olympic and Paralympic sports.
Role of the AIS Campus in Canberra
The future role of the AIS campus in Canberra must be determined in relation to long term commitment and funding. My thoughts include:
It is still an important national training centre as it offers a full range of facilities and services in one location – it is not replicated in Australia.
It has a critical role in developing team sport athletes – “to be the best – train with the best”. The former AIS Men’s & Women’s Basketball, AIS Netball and AIS Men’s Football are testament to that model.
I would like it to become a National Centre for Movement Skills – many Olympic sports now require high level movement skills. These include – diving, gymnastics/trampolining, aerial skiing, bmx cycling, skateboarding and surfing. All these sports are judged in relation to skill and execution. The sharing of knowledge by coaches and scientists is critical. The current gymnastics training hall needs to be rebuilt and a new centre could be designed to provide the necessary skills training and testing environment for these sports.
More Medal Sports
At the Sydney Olympics, Australia won medals in 20 sports. At Tokyo 2020, it won medals in 15 sports – including two new sports. Future national high performance planning should aspire to medals in 20 sports and funding models should reflect that aspiration. Also, we should aspire to win gold medals in 10 to 12 sports. Whilst team sports should be in the mix, history tells us it is extremely difficult to win medals in team sports particularly in professional sports.
Talent Identification and Development
With the Brisbane 2032 Games on the horizon, talent identification and development must be at the forefront. I would like to see something similar to Sport Search that operated in the lead up to Sydney Olympics. This computer-based program allowed high school students to discover sports that they may be best suited to. It will be a much easy program to set up these days in the internet environment.
Olympic sports in Australia have a limited talent pool as sports like Australian football, cricket, netball and rugby league attract many talented athletes. More work needs to be done to assist talent transfer or identification. Canada’s Kelsey Mitchell won cycling’s women’s sprint after only being identified four years earlier.
It was wonderful to see boxer Harry Garside win the bronze medal. Australia’s last medal was in 1988 with Grahame Cheney’s silver. The last time Australia has won medals in judo and taekwondo was in 2000. The new Combat Institute of Australia is a great initiative but it needs long term sustained support – there are 54 gold medals in combat sports (boxing, taekwondo, judo and wrestling).
Women’s Sports Team Sports
Several years ago I wrote about the impact of the increased professionalism in AFLW, netball and women’s cricket on the talent base of women’s Olympic team sports. I’m a little concerned about the Opals that only had two players under twenty five and six over 30. The team at Paris 2024 will be very different to the one at Tokyo. Maybe we need encourage women and girls play a range of team sports during their career – play both basketball and AFLW. I have a sense that the need environment is forcing them to specialise.
The Australian and State Governments should be very pleased about the outcomes of their investment into Olympic sports. Australia has turned the corner after 2012 London and 2016 Rio Olympics.
Whilst investment in Olympic sports is frequently judged by Olympic medal counts, there is the need to judge and applaud this investment through other major sporting events – world championships, world cups, tennis and golf majors, major cycling tours, Commonwealth Games.
It will be interesting to see the level of investment and its allocation in the lead up to Brisbane 2032 Olympics – will it be targeted or more evenly spread across sports. ?
Finally and most importantly what will be the level of investment in sport participation – the base of high performance sport and an important ingredient being a ‘healthy” nation.
Sport and in this case the Olympics, can be a short and much needed distraction from the troubles of life particularly during a pandemic.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison in Parliament made the following comments:
“I want to extend the county’s congratulations and thanks to our Australian Olympic team, as well as the organisers of the Tokyo Olympic Games for what has been a truly extraordinary fortnight,”
“These were the Games that the world needed, and Japan and the Olympic movement delivered those Games”.
“These were the Games that Australia needed, and our magnificent athletes have delivered.
“The Australian Olympic team, generally, has inspired us.
“Olympic heroes and champions, indeed, for the ages.”