Tokyo Olympics Review: Part 3-Medals and systems, what happened below Top 10.

After the first two posts on general aspects, medals and TOP10 systems, it is now time to have a look at what happened below the TOP 10 nations in the table and try to understand more performance and systems trends.

Canada has been climbing ranks since London 2012 moving from 27th place with 18 medals (2 Golds) to the 11th place in Tokyo with 24 medals (7 Golds). Canada won medals in 10 sports with Athletics and Swimming winning half of the total medals. No medals in Women athletics, but a 4th place in the 4×400. Very good performance in Men’s athletics, with the potential to upgrade the bronze to silver in the 4x100m if Team GB will lose it due to a Doping positive finding in one of their relay member. Andre de Grasse delivering two individual medals with the Gold in the 200m and Evan Dunfee confirming that when the heat is on, he is well prepared, just like he was in Doha 2019. Overall the Canadians take 5th place in the points system in Athletics. Huge Gold medal in Women’s Football (or Soccer like they like to call it in North America). I bet the semifinal win was celebrated as much as the Hockey Gold in Vancouver in 2010. Canadian women winning in track cycling (no boys near the podium). Canada has a good sports infrastructure and great scientific support and has been always performing very well in the Winter Olympics. Looks like the Canadians are cracking the code in summer sports too. In fact, they qualified the largest team in history in Tokyo (also thanks to new sports for sure) but with good investment and talent (also talent transfer) in multi-medal sports I think they can challenge the TOP 10 if the level of investment stays up and maybe they put some effort in cycling, where I am sure they can have the talent and the resources to up the ante. There are great news for the Canadians in terms of sport funding with some specific funding to ensure indigenous women and girls have access to sports activities. In this day and age, 10 Golds take you in the TOP 10…if they can find them in 3 years, taking some away from other nations, they are in! So keep an eye on the Canadian team in Paris!

Brazil managed to improve a bit on their home games (adding two bronze medals to the previous games) and improving one position in the ranking (12th place). Medals came from 12 sports, and a big boost came from 3 medals from skateboarding with some young athletes taking a lot of attention thanks to their impressive skills and stories. Almost an even split of medals distribution between male and female athletes. Performance seems stable despite the rollercoaster ride of Olympic Sports in Brazil after the Rio Olympics. If you are not familiar with the ‘Operation car wash‘ you can read more here. I believe Brazil and India are the two sleeping giants of World Sport. Large populations, enormous potential when you see the amazing athletes they have. The impressive performances of Rebeca Andrade in Gymnastics and Ana Marcela Cunha in the 10K open water swim and the women’s volleyball silver also show the potential for female athletes in Brazil. Resources and support structures are what Brazil needs to reach TOP 10. If they can make the planned legacy centres work and staff them with qualified and motivated individuals with good quality coaches, they can be a World power in sport (more details on the national training network are here).

Hungary and New Zealand won more than Rio 2016 and confirmed their places just below the Top 10. Hungary won medals in 9 sports with 1/3rd of the medals coming from female athletes. Big disappointment was the Women’s handball team (but their future is bright with a lot of up and coming talent), and maybe they were expecting the women’s water polo team to be in the Final against the US. Canoeing always producing the goods for Hungary with solid history in the sport and continuous talent. They always have a good return for investment thanks to high quality athletes and a coaching system linked to sports science development mostly in the University of Physical Education and Sports Science TF which is the main hub of coaching education in the country (I am an alumnus, so I am biased, but this place is really special).

New Zealand is one of the few countries consistently increasing the number of medals won since Athens 2004. The progression has been immense.

EditionAthletes EnteredGoldSilverBronzeTotalRank
 2000 Sydney151103446
 2004 Athens148320524
 2008 Beijing182324925
 2012 London1846251315
2016 Rio de Janeiro1994951819
 2020 Tokyo2137672013
New Zealand in recent editions of the Summer Olympics

For such a small country winning medals in 11 sports is phenomenal and 8 medals between rowing and canoeing come at a fraction of the cost of the respective Team GB programmes. Almost an even distribution of male/female medals (9/11). I always look at HPSNZ as good reference system where resources are maximised and innovative approaches are used tos develop sport in the country. If you want to know more about it, you can access the information here. The new investment strategy looks promising with the potential to support more athletes and sport achieve international success. The sad story for NZ sport was the tragedy of the cyclist Olivia Podmore. An independente inquiry has been announced to look into the environment of cycling NZ and what can be done to improve health and wellbeing of athletes.

What else has been happening in the second and third tier nations?

Spain is stable with 17 medals (albeit a lot less gold) than previous editions which puts them after the TOP 20. 3 medals from Team Sports for the Spanish team, not much coming from Athletics or Cycling, nothing in Swimming but Gold medals in the new events Karate and Sport Climbing. For a country of 46M people, I think they underperform, they should be in the top 20. I echo what Fernando Carreño wrote on La Marca, there is a need to adopt some sort of system in Spain. Which one is the question. He suggests the Dutch one due to the links with the former head coach of Spanish Hockey Maurit Hendricks who was leading the Dutch NOC in this Olympic cycle. Can the massive debt reported from their two major football Clubs Barcelona and Real Madrid sway the interest and funding opportunities for Olympic Sports? In the meantime, Los Hispanos (the handball men’s team) brought home another Bronze medal closing a cycle with the legendary captain Raúl Entrerrios bringing closure to an incredible career with the national team. Also, the women’s water polo team tried to upset the US team in the final, however, at the moment, the Americans are totally out of reach for anybody.

Kenya is on the way down (-3 medals from Rio 2016). This is due to the diaspora of athletes moving to compete for other nations (I think I could identify around 20 Kenyans competing for other flags with some winning medals) as well as stricter antidoping/eligibility rules imposed by some international federations. Time will tell if the Kenyan dominance n running events will fade due to the current challenges.

Other major things to note in the medal table: the massive drop in medal count for Azerbaijan (7 medals in Tokyo vs 18 in Rio, all medals coming from combat sports) and Uzbekistan (5 medals in Tokyo vs 13 in Rio with Boxing producing only 1 medal vs 7 in the previous edition). Those two nations were the big losers in the medal table.

Arab nations

Qatar was the top-ranked Arab country in the games, with three medals, including two golds and one bronze. They were the first two Olympic gold medals in Qatar’s history. Athlete Fares Ibrahim El-Bakh won gold in men’s 96kg weightlifting and Mutaz Essa Barshim in the high jump (sharing the gold with Marco Tamberi of Italy). Qatar’s bronze medal came from men’s beach volleyball.

Qatar's Barshim, Italy's Tamberi share Olympic high jump gold | Olympics  News | Al Jazeera
One of the iconic moments of the Tokyo Olympics. Shared Gold medal in High Jump.

The second best-placed Arab country in Tokyo was Egypt, with six medals, one gold, one silver, and four bronze. The Egyptian gold came from women’s Karate Kumite, with athlete Feryal Abdelaziz in the over 61 kg category. Ahmed Elgendy won silver in the modern pentathlon. Giana Lotfy won bronze in women’s under 61kg Kumite, Seif Eissa in men’s 80 kg taekwondo, Hedaya Malak in women’s 67 kg taekwondo, and Mohamed Ibrahim Elsayed in men’s 67 kg wrestling. The Handball Pharaohs lost the bronze medal match against a much experienced Spanish team. But they had a fantastic tournament, played a very attractive style of handball thanks to influence of Spanish coach Parrondo and have high quality players in their team (keep an eye on the young talent Hassan Walid Kaddah in the future). They are the team to watch in Paris.

Tunisia was the third best-ranked Arab country in Tokyo, in 58th place. The country earned two medals, one gold, and one silver. The gold came from the incredible performance of Ahmed Hafnaoui, in the men’s 400 m freestyle swimming. Mohamed Khalil Jendoubi earned silver for Tunisia in the men’s 58 kg taekwondo.

Tunisia's Ahmed Hafnaoui wins men's 400m freestyle gold

Morocco came 63rd with a gold medal in men’s 3,000 m hurdles in athletics by Soufiane El Bakkali. Jordan took 74th place with one silver by Saleh Elsharabaty in men’s 80 kg taekwondo and a bronze by Abdel Rahman Almasatfa in men’s 67 kg Kumite.

Bahrain finished 77th with one silver by Kalkidan Gezahegne in the women’s 10,000 m athletics. Saudi Arabia reached the same position as Bahrain, with a silver medal from Tareq Hamedi in men’s over 75kg Kumite.

Kuwait came 86th, with a bronze from Abdullah Alrashidi in men’s shooting. Syria, also in 86th place, earned a bronze medal with athlete Man Asaad in men’s over 109kg weightlifting.

Continental Trends

Asian sport is on the up, thanks to the investment in infrastructure and expertise in the continent. For the first time in history, Asia has won more than a quarter of the medals awarded in the Olympic Games.

Asian Medals at the Summer Olympics

This result was boosted by Japan’s performances as well as the usual strong performance from China, but more nations are now achieving incredible results, and the first gold medal also arrived for India thanks to India’s young javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra who won his country’s first Olympic gold medal in track and field.

Neeraj Chopra wins Olympic gold medal in javelin throw at Tokyo 2020

First Gold medal also for the Philippines, thanks to the outstanding performance of Hidilyn Diaz beating the World record for the 55kg weighlifting women’s division of 127 Kg in the Clean and Jerk (total 224 kgs).

Hidilyn Diaz wins Philippines' first Olympic gold medal with weightlifting  - CNN

There are a lot of analyses available online looking at alternative medal tables taking into consideration GDP, Population, etc. I suggest you look at the excellent visualisations from the Sky News data journalist Ganesh Rao as well as the example below from Bloomberg.

FiveThirtyEight‘s interactive medal count provides an overview of the number of medals won by the NOCs in the context of the initial analytic expectations. The projections were generated based on the competing countries’ achievements in each sport over the past three Summer Olympics (you can read more about the methodology used by this FiveThirtyEight here)

Tokyo Olympics Review: Part 2, the medal table

Following up from part 1 where I covered some general aspects of the Tokyo Olympics, it is time now to have a look at the medal table, discuss performances of NOCs, look at trends and curiosities and expand the conversations about sporting systems. Of course, comparing the medal table to previous Olympics will have to take into account the new sports and therefore, many NOCs won more just because they had more chances to win more. Getting into the TOP 10 in the medal table requires always winning more than 20 medals in total with a range of 7-10 Gold. Best chances come from multi-medal sports where even a single athlete can win enough gold to place a country in the top 10 (Emma McKeon and Kaylee McKeown for Australia contributed with 7 Golds and 4 Bronze medals in Swimming to Australia’s success in Tokyo).

The USA regained the first place despite winning less medals than the Rio 2016 edition, but thanks to one more gold medal than China, succeeded in retaining 1st place. Team USA won medals in 25 Sports with most medals coming from the usual Swimming and Athletics programmes (30 and 26 respectively!). 58.4% of the medals came from female Athletes, while 36.3% from males and the rest from mixed events. An increase in the female to male distribution of medals from Rio 2016 and a clear indication that women sports in the US is going strong. The two programmes probably ‘underdelivering’ for Team USA were Athletics (6 medals less than Rio, more on that when I will talk about athletics) and Gymnastics (6 medals compared to 12 in Rio) clearly affected by the Larry Nassar scandal, something I hope nobody will ever experience in Sport anywhere.

China won more medals than in Rio with great improvements in Diving, Gymnastics and Shooting and benefitting from the new opportunities in Karate. 53.4% of the medals coming from female athletes. 18 more medals more than Rio were not enough to regain the first place due to one gold medal difference with the US. So Chinese sport stable at the top with new talent coming up.

Japan did very well as expected and predicted, however still 11 gold medals away from the second place, and in total 30 medals away from team China, indicating that US and China at the moment are the sports superpowers also due to the population element and the high quality of various sporting programmes. Japan is definitively on the ‘up’ on the medal table with a stable increase in total medals and golds since the Beijing 2008 games. The games were definitively a success from a performance standpoint. In fact, Japan won medals in 20 Sports in Tokyo vs the 11 Sports in Rio benefitting (as expected) the most from the new sports with medals in Skateboarding, Surfing, Sport Climbing and Karate. Judo and Wrestling remain the strongholds of the Japanese programme, but a lot of progress was shown in many other sports and Paris 2024 will tell us if the investment and effort of the last few years has contributed to developing a successful system or if this was all geared towards the Home Games.

Japan at the last 4 Olympic Games. Number of Athletes entered, Gold, Silver, Bronze and Total Medals

Team GB followed in 4th place with an excellent performance, replicating the number of medals won in Beijing in 2008. Team GB won medals in 18 sports vs 19 in Rio 2016 and had 16 4th places indicating that the British Sporting system is still the best in Europe (if we just consider the geography…not the Brexit). Cycling and Swimming were the big medal winners for Team GB who also benefitted from a new sort (Skateboarding) and a new event (Team Triathlon, which is by the way a brilliant event!). The investment is still there and is very significant (352m British Pounds poured into sports) and clearly the approach is working, since Team GB has been constantly performing since Beijing and has been the only programme to improve and retain performances for two olympic cycles following the home games. However, all that glitters is not gold.

Article content image
Data from data journalist Tom Saunders

Rowing and Athletics had a low return for investment for Team GB. The rowing programme has been historically one of the ‘golden eggs’ of Team GB and this time only returned two medals despite receiving £24,655,408 in investment with a cost per medal very similar to the Bronze medal in Hockey (£12,905,612). Badminton and Rugby 7s also did no perform as well as expected, and there were few disappointments in other sports too. Also, the usual challenges with the funding model were discussed in the media questioning why there are still athletes that need crowdfunding to be at the games and/or win medals (see the BMX programme or the Rugby 7s). The British sporting system is possibly one of the most complicated in the World, and having worked there I can say that conversations about funding are always complex and require the complete understanding of how the system works. Not the topic for this post, but people should not compare the UK system with any other systems, because of the complexities in funding, the structure of home nations and many other things. So, in my view, Tokyo was a success for Team GB in very difficult circumstances and I know how much work and planning goes into Olympic preparations so a big well done to my former colleagues for another incredible outcome.

What I can say is that for sure ‘the system’ is relatively healthy and still able to perform with this volume of medal outputs, however I cannot spare some criticism not to the system but to the overall British Sporting landscape in terms of opportunities for athletes.

Despite all the success, the system solely depends on public funding from UK Sport. So, if you are successful, you win medals, you get more money to sustain and develop programmes. The moment you don’t, funding is taken away, and you pretty much disappear and/or go back to be an amateur setup. It has happened before (see here or here) and it will happen again. Sports are still not able to raise funds and/or sign meaningful sponsorship deals to improve and/or sustain their programmes, so it is not uncommon to see crowdfunding pages of athletes, private donors providing funds, Athletes selling their Olympic Merchandise to fund themselves, or athletes getting into debt to fund an Olympic participation. A good overview of lottery money is available here, and I don’t want to sound critical of the funding system. So I need to make this clear: without UK Sport funding, there would be no Team GB success and this funding created the opportunity for many sports and athletes to succeed. However, this is the only sporting system in the World with no bonuses for medalists and NGBs/Clubs unable to raise meaningful sponsorships to take them to the next level. In a country where Football/Rugby/Cricket are kings, despite all Olympic success you still don’t have professional leagues in team sports like everywhere else in Europe (Hockey, Handball, Volleyball, Water Polo, Basketball), and limited employment systems for individual sports able to provide a safe salary for sportsmen and a job after their retirement. Doing sports in the UK is expensive and still not accessible to many. Facilities are expensive to hire and unsustainable for many clubs and until something changes, sporting success will only be possible if there will be government funding. I really hope that more sports can be televised more frequently in the UK in order to raise their profile and hopefully attract more sponsorship. The women’s football league in England is probably a good example, but would love to be able to switch on the BBC one day and see a game from the national league of Hockey/Volleyball/Handball/Basketball or the national triathlon/badminton/table tennis championships just like I do in other parts of the World. There is immense talent everywhere in the UK and I think at times for many it is not possible to be a full time sportperson due to the financial challenges, and so I hope more opportunities will be created to make the system better and less reliant on public funding. In the meantime, the government announced £232M investment for Paris 2024, showing continuous commitment to sport and this will allow successful federations to build on their programmes and less successful ones to review and rebuild with enough funding.

ROC had the usual high quality of performances, however I am not sure if I should compare them to Russia in previous editions. This is the lowest ranking the team got in the modern era. The ‘suspension’ of the Russian team due to the national doping programme is a controversial aspect which has attracted of course a lot of debate. The ROC team won medals in 18 sports with most coming from Wrestling, Shooting, Fencing and Gymnastics. It is difficult to analyse if this was a good or bad performance due to the situation, and so, we will have to wait and see in Paris after the ‘ban’ ends.

Australia is back on the higher part of the table thanks to their very successful swimming programme (21 medals, 9 Golds) and their reliable Rowing Programme (4 medals, 2 Golds). Medals came from 15 sports and a few from new sports too, showing that despite the radical changes in the AIS, and the controversies around spending, the system is relatively healthy and capable of producing world leading performers. Thanks to the boost of having been given Brisbane 2032 by the IOC, I predict another rise in the ranks in the next two editions culminating with Brisbane 2032 as host nation. I really hope to see more sports developing outstanding performers in Australia, a country with huge sporting and competitive culture, with excellent practitioners and a great history in sports science support.

Netherlands, France, Germany and Italy had all very similar performances. I think the Netherlands did superwell considering the population size when compared to France/Germany and Italy and showed some depth as well winning medals in 10 sports. For the orange team, cycling and athletics were the main sports bringing home precious metal with some exceptional athletes capable of multi-medaling (Sifan Hassan and Annemiek van Vleuten above all). Very happy for my friend Charles Van Commenee and the success of the Dutch athletics team (8 medals is pretty good I would say). Disappointed by the women’s handball team. I thought they could get into the semifinals, unfortunately I think they underperformed when it mattered. The Dutch system does not benefit from the same level of investment of the UK and relies on a good club system and has also great leagues in most team sports (read about the Hockey league here). Centralised national team camps are facilitated by geography and good training facilities like Papendal can provide expertise to the dutch system. They had a record breaking performance and I can see their system getting stable in the top 10 of nations.

France won medals in 16 sports with Judo and Fencing being the usual sports delivering the most medals. Also, they did the ‘double’ in Handball winning Gold in both the Men and Women’s tournament continuing the tradition of being a handball superpower in recent years. Great medal in Volleyball and worrying performances in Swimming and Athletics with too little coming from Cycling. If they want to do well in Paris, these are the sports where they need to find talent able to win medals.

Germany won medals in 14 sports with Canoeing being the main sport for their programme. There is nothing coming from their team sports anymore, 8 medals in total coming from Swimming, Athletics and Cycling. Not sure what is really happening in Germany, they went form 44 medals in London 2012 (ranking 6th) to 37 in Tokyo (ranking 9). It is one of the nations showing a decreased in performance in the last few years in particular when you compare it to the first edition as a unified team in Barcelona in 1992 when they won 82 medals and ranked 3rd in the medal table. I thought the Handball men’s team could do something with coach Gislasson, but they were outclassed by Egypt in the quarter finals. Overall, it seems that German sport is underperforming compared to its glorious past. The reasons are unclear, and I would definitively love to know more about this. Few problems with their coaches appeared too (here and here). Is the German system fading away? What happened to all the work done on training methodology, athletes’ testing, talent ID, technology? The past doping history of Germany is well recognised, so current results should not be compared to the 70s and 80s era of the two German teams. However, this decline is significant, in particular when considering the new sports and more medals added to the Olympic Programme. Does Germany need to modernise the approach to sport? Do structures in place need some revisions? Or is it simply an unfortunate year? We have to wait just 3 years until Paris, I think only then we will know if Germany can retain the top 10 position in the medal table.

Finally some considerations for Italy, the last nation in the TOP 10 in the medal table. The Italian team had a fantastic two weeks in Tokyo, winning 40 medals in 16 sports. With Swimming, Fencing and Athletics being the best sports with the most number of medals won. Athletics was the big surprise with 5 gold medals which projected the Italian team in the top 10. Italy won 20 bronze medals and had many 4th places. Italy competed in all sports except badminton, field hockey (never qualified a team to the games), football (unbelievable I would say…), handball (never qualified a team to the games) and rugby sevens. Italy reached and surpassed its own record for the highest number of Olympic medals won in a single edition beating the record of 36 in the home games in Rome in 1960 (another era) and also had best ever games in Athletics winning five gold medals (Gianmarco Tamberi in high jump, Lamont Marcell Jacobs in 100 metres, Massimo Stano and Antonella Palmisano in their respective 20 km racewalking events, and the 4×100 men relay). I am very happy for Italian athletics and my dear friend Professor Antonio La Torre the technical director. After serving as a member of their scientific and research commission in the Rio 2016 cycle I could see the willingness to modernise coaching and support structures and their work in the pandemic phase has been just top notch. Tamberi returned to top form following a terrible injury and won a fantastic final together with the amazing Mutaz Barshim (double celebration for me!), Stano and Palmisano prepared very well for the heat and worked hard on various simulations to finalise preparations for the competition in Tokyo. Jacobs stunned the World with Gold in the 100m, a win that caused quite a lot of stir in the press (read here, here and here). This was followed by the 4x100m Gold by the Italian team (Marcell Jacobs, Lorenzo Patta, Eseosa Desalu and Filippo Tortu) which had a lot of press attention too, in particular because it seems to follow the summer trend started by the Italian Football team of beating British teams. The sad story of that final is the positive case of one of Team GB sprinters which is unfolding now, and if confirmed, this will be a big scandal for Team GB as well as a silver medal loss. Italy did also well in track cycling, with the amazing performance and World Record of the Team Pursuit team (#trenoazzurro) lead by the incredible Filippo Ganna. I will comment on some individual performances on the next posts when I will analyse some of the events/sports.

So, everybody in Italy is happy, celebrating and patting themselves on the back. Well deserved for sure. But, I am not so sure. I always believed the Italian sporting system has more potential. In fact, I have said it a few times also in some of my talks, Italy could be better than Team GB or at least on par with the British team. I will explain why I strongly believe this is the case. First of all, Italy has a similar population size to GB (approximately 60 vs 66M people). Sport is relatively well funded in Italy (Federations get something like 250M euros per year from the government with CONI absorbing most of the costs). However most of the costs are absorbed by administrative and obsolete infrastructure with a lot of power residing in the elected presidents and federal councils making a lot of decisions on technical aspects. Also, most top athletes and some coaches of Olympic sports are state employees in the various police forces and therefore they cost nothing to the federations (in terms of salary/scholarship). Funding in GB has to be used to pay for everything, from personnel to athlete’s ‘stipends’. Of the 40 medals won by Team Italy in Tokyo, only 15 were won by females (and only 1 in mixed events), indicating that more efforts need to be placed in women’s sports with a potential large return. There are many female athletes role models in Italy that have inspired and can inspire young women (just to name one performing in Tokyo: Federica Pellegrini), Italy just needs better sporting infrastructure, introduce sport since primary schools, making sport accessible (and free) to many and developing more female athletes and coaches. Italy has great Olympic training centres in Formia and Tirrenia for most sports, with other private or state funded facilities to accommodate for team sports. All team sports athletes are effectively professionals paid for by their clubs (Water Polo, Basketball, Volleyball which were present in Tokyo), and therefore the ‘cost’ of attempting medals in those sports should be a lot lower than the cost of the bronze medal for the Hockey team of Team GB. Italy is also struggling financially and maybe more youngsters would see sport as a way to guarantee a better future. Talent ID/Talent Transfer programmes have been virtually non existing in Italy, and some of those could potentially benefit ‘engine sports’ mobilising athletes currently playing the ‘wrong sports’ (Tamberi was a basketball player until 16 years of age when he decided to dedicate himself to High jump). For this to happen, Italy would need to change completely they way sport is run. Reduce the power of the political arms of the federations (presidents and consiglieri federali) in deciding technical matters (since most of the times they are totally unqualified), hire high quality technical people independently of their ‘political connections’ (I can always dream, can I?) and provide decisional and financial power to performance directors (or direttori tecnici), avoid brain drain of the best coaches/sports people, guarantee better contracts and stability to coaches, develop long term strategies and revisit the whole coaching education piece still grounded on the 70s and 80s and the translations of Russian manuals. Last but not least, a revamp of a national institute would be necessary to provide focus to R&D efforts. So, while I am saying well done to my countrymen, I urge them to think big. Italy can reach 4th in the medal table, why don’t we aim for it? Let’s improve and modernise sport, contractual obligations, infrastructure, job security for sports specialists, introduce sport better in school programmes, provide schools with appropriate facilities. This summer has shown us again that we have the talent, but talent alone is not enough.

Breakthrough nations

San MarinoTurkmenistan and Burkina Faso won medals this year for the first time in their nations’ histories. QatarBermuda and the Philippines joined the special club of nations winning at least one Gold Medal. Qatar had the best ever Olympic Game with two golds and one bronze and the athletes had a great following and support from Home. On a personal level, I was particularly proud of the first Qatar female athlete qualifying in Rowing. My friend and former colleague Tala Abujbara coached by my dear friend Malcolm Geluk made the impossible possible being the sole woman rower in the country and competing around the World while working full time in a demanding job. She was also the flag bearer in Tokyo. I hope to see more women like Tala in future Qatar teams.

(You can see more about some sports science support Tala received here: https://fb.watch/7rnV77Mlho/)

In the next part I will look at how other nations did providing a commentary on some ‘surprises’ , I will then analyse some sports and individual performances and also talk a bit about the environmental challenges faced by the athletes and the technical innovations seen.

Tokyo Olympics Review: Part 1

It’s been a few days since the Olympic flame in Tokyo was extinguished. Possibly the most challenging Olympic Games of the modern era, or as I put it in my opinion paper published here few days before the opening ceremony, the first “Pandemic Olympics”.

The journey to the games has been difficult for everyone, athletes, coaches, support teams, sports administrators, organisers, broadcasters. Everyone struggled with changes in schedules, rules, regulations, possibility of cancellations and enormous challenges provided by the uncertainties of the COVID pandemic worldwide. Despite all of that, the Olympics happened, and as usual, it was an incredible show. With amazing stories, big surprises, old and new heroes and villains, disappointments and drama. I have a special connection with the Olympics, I watched all editions since I was a small chid, I have memories of Mennea winning gold in Moscow 1980, the Abbagnale brothers winning in 1988 sin Seoul (if you can’t understand Italian unfortunately you can’t appreciate one of the best live commentating of a sporting achievement on Italian TV with Giampiero Galeazzi). The Olympics for me have been the epitome of excellence in the sporting world and I was always fascinated about how individuals in different parts of the World strived for excellence even when the conditions they were in were less than optimal. As an athlete, I was never even remotely good enough to even dream about playing at the Olympics, and so my only chance was to get there as a professional. I feel privileged of having worked with Italian athletes first to get them to Sydney Olympics and later on with Team GB in Beijing, Vancouver (for the winter edition) and London in 2012 as well as having worked more recently with young athletes that went on to represent Qatar in 2016 and in Tokyo.

Every edition of the Olympic Games brings its challenges, and since I have been involved in sport, every edition draws the interest of the press in the build up mostly looking for controversial angles. There is in fact no hosting city that is immune from criticism for their construction plans, air quality, environmental issues, organisational challenges, transport issues, local socioeconomic policies, etc. Very rarely I read praise about how cities see the Olympics as an opportunity to improve the infrastructure, enhance sporting facilities, develop sports tourism and business and boost a nations’ morale. But I am no politician, and therefore I will not comment on those aspects. My only comment is that I think Rome missed a chance withdrawing from the Olympic bid for 2028. However, I understand the concerns, considering that my home country is marred with corruption (just look at the disaster of Italia 90 here) and with big events there is always the risk of unnecessary spending enriching the usual suspects.

Next up is Paris in 3 years, followed by LA in 2028 and Brisbane as recently announced (without a rival bid) hosting the games in 2032. So, what has been happening in this edition characterised by daily news about quarantine, vaccination and covid positives? I will analyse few aspects, and it may take me few blog posts. In Part 1 I will cover the preparation phase and a general analysis and commentary of the medal table. In other parts I will delve into some results/trends and specific sports aspects as well as covering some elements related to Sports Science.

“For the first time, Olympic teams will not have their families and fans travelling to support them in Japan, adding more complexities to the dynamics usually observed at the OGs. Mental health will affect the ability to perform of athletes and staff.”

(Cardinale, IJSMPF, 2021)

I will start with the self quote. Getting to the games was not easy for anyone. Different countries experienced different periods of closures of sports facilities since January 2020, cancellations of events and challenges with travel. Just look at the data of some European nations (below from my opinion paper) to see the challenge experienced by athletes and their coaching staff. On top of that, you had athletes that struggled to chase qualification opportunities with many being cancelled worldwide and exposure to COVID quarantine, isolation, repeated testing regimes and challenging travel conditions. This was not easy for anybody. To add more complexities, the impossibility for families and fans to travel and the strict quarantine requirement represented a high risk situation, which I knew would create additional challenges to mental health in the ‘pressure cooker’ of the Olympic bubble.

Unfortunately, as I anticipated, I was right, and issues about mental health became prominent as soon as the games started also because of some high level athletes reporting publicly their struggles. At least, this OG will be hopefully a catalyst for change in the way athletes, coaches and staff are dealt with not only at the event itself but in preparation for and after the event. While the focus seems to be mostly on athletes, it is important to recognise that they are not the only ones struggling, they have a lot of people working for/with them which are under pressure and experience high levels of stress also because in many countries failure might mean job losses and financial consequences. I conducted a study during the Olympics in London 2012 with the support team, analysing perceived stress and general health and I can tell you that quite a few individuals do struggle in big events and there are rarely support systems in place in many nations to look after overworked, tired and stressed individuals. I might write more on that in another blog post but this is definitively an area I want to do more research on as I feel that coaching staff at times is neglected. On the athletes’ front, I am happy to see some new initiatives of value. For the first time in fact, I have seen the performance decompression initiative from the EIS for Team GB, and I think it is an excellent idea which I hope many athletes, coaches and staff will use. Post-games blues are not uncommon as already reported elsewhere, and I think in too many cases there is limited duty of care for athletes following the games and definitively almost none for staff. Also, nowhere I have seen considerations for the ‘ones that don’t make it’ to the games, and recent happenings are a sad reminder that we should not forget the athletes that don’t qualify, get injured, don’t get selected as well as the staff that is told that they ‘will not go to the games’. If we as a sporting community are finally openly talking about mental health for athletes, let’s have the same conversations for coaches and support staff. Elite sport is not for the faint hearted and it involves a lot of stressful exposure all culminating in the Olympic bubble, which at times I have described as the village of losers since most of the athletes getting in the Olympic village go home without a medal. I believe that success in sport can be achieved also by looking after athletes and staff, and recent public reviews of many sports programmes around the World are telling us that more needs to be done to safeguard every individual working in Sport.

COVID and the Games

As the games started, it was clear that many athletes had to drop-out due to the covid rules. Pretty much every nation had to deal with athletes and staff being dropped from competition due to a positive covid test and/or quarantine/isolation requirements. Some high profile cases did cost medals to a few nations, and while some seem to be genuine ‘accidents’ in some cases you really wonder how naive the athletes were in attending large gatherings before flying to Tokyo and/or how badly planned their travels were. Everyone had to deal with the ‘Playbook‘ which established the rules and regulations for COVID testing and quarantine. While I believe the rules are very clear and helped everyone in managing the situation, I think that in some cases decisions did not follow current evidence and I agree with the views expressed by my colleague and friend Dr Schumacher who is much more qualified than me in matters of infection control. Hopefully there will be lessons learnt and better policies will be developed for future events for as long as we will be dealing with COVID. The Global Health effort was immense during the Games and final data will come soon. For the moment, I think this event can be used as a model for future large sporting events.

Here is the IOC press conference on COVID at the Games.

The Medal Table

There were high expectations for Japan, due to the announced ambition of the host nation of a target of 30 Gold medals made in 2019 (one year before the original dates). The host nation boost has been well reported over the years and it is expected for a host nation to win more medals than in previous games. You can read an interesting article on The Washington Post here, and see all the data about medals of previous host nations. Few nations seem to be able to be consistently on the ‘up’ on the medal table at the moment, with Japan being one of them and NZ with a consistent growth. Important to note the fact that Team GB seems to be holding well from hosting the games in 2012 and possibly being the only nation to maintain similar leve of performance 2 editions after the home games (more on that later).

I have built a dashboard on Microsoft Power BI (by the way, did I say how wonderful this software is?) to follow and analyse results as they came and it is available clicking on the link below.

The Power BI report is available here

There are plenty of visualisations for the medal table and analyses of really high quality available for free on the web.

I suggest the work done by Gracenote (you can check their widgets here), the excellent work of the amazing data journalist @amyborrett available here, a nice dashboard available here, a tutorial on using R to visualise Olympic data, some great ideas here on Flourish and an amazing list of Viz options here. Last but not least a brilliant ShinyApp here.

But before going into some nuances, it is important to say that thanks to more new sports added and increased competitiveness, more nations have won medals in this edition. 93 NOCs have in fact won at least one medal of any color in Tokyo. Some curiosities: San Marino won the first medal (they won 3 in the end!), Philippines, Bermuda and Qatar won gold for the first time entering the special club of a small pool of nations able to win at least one Gold medal at the Olympics.

The US topped the medal table again, followed by China, with Japan in third place with 58 medals won (27 golds, so not far from the ambition). Australia made it back to the top 5, ROC is on the way down also due to the current Doping related bans (but I am sure there is more to discuss about this!). Team GB lost two places (due to the number of Gold Medals compared to Japan). Netherlands, France, Germany and Italy complete the Top 10 of this edition. Data on medals per capita are available here and here.

USA top medal table again

Many nations have benefitted from multiple medal winning athletes in events where this is possible (e.g. Swimming, Gymnastics, Athletics). And the US swimmer Caeleb Dressel was the most successful athlete with 5 Gold Medals continuing the tradition of multi-medalists in US Swimming.

Tokyo top 10 athletes

World records were broken 22 times in this edition, with most records beaten in Track Cycling.

where world records were broken

So, lots of exciting things to talk about when ‘dissecting’ the medal table, looking at specific events and commenting on different nations’ results.

Stay tuned for the next parts!