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.

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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:

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.