Category: Olympic Games

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 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!

Should we expect a bigger home advantage in the Tokyo Olympics?

63 days to go until the opening ceremony of the most unusual Olympic Games in History. While Worldwide and in Japan there is a lot of discussion about the possibility that this edition may not go ahead after the postponement of last year, let’s discuss home advantage at the Olympics.

The COVID situation is still ‘live’ and it will be a challenge for athletes and support staff to attend with many restrictions and most of all with uncertainty over the ability for the public to access the venues. What we know is that international spectators will not be allowed to attend the games and travel to Japan which creates a unique scenario for such a global sporting event. In fact, we could have a scenario where only domestic spectators can be allowed to attend (full or limited numbers) or the current scenario in many countries at the moment where no spectators are allowed in the venues.

Either scenario will have for sure implications for the performance of athletes and may affect in particular local athletes (positively or negatively is the real question).

Historically, home nations have benefitted from the Olympics at home by winning more medals than the previous editions. In the last twenty years in particular, the trend has been quite clear with Greece and Brazil showing a minimal ‘gain’ from hosting the games and Australia, Great Britain and China making huge improvements (with GB being the only nation to surpass home games success in Rio 2016).

Difference in Medals won from previous OG in host nations.

Japan as a host nation has great ambitions. The performance of Japanese athletes in the last 3 editions of the Olympic Games has shown an increase in the number of medals possibly thanks to increased investment in Olympic Sports and in infrastructure which could reach its peak at the ‘Home’ Olympics. My Japanese colleagues tell me the objective is to finish in the top 3.

Current virtual medal tables based on performances in World Championships/World Cups/Continental championships are starting to predict how the final medal table might look like and many indicate that Japan might be well on track to be in the top 4 in this edition with the fight between 1st and 2nd place between USA and China and with Team GB not looking particularly promising.

Virtual Medal Table 1-10
Virtual Medal Table by Gracenote

Another nation looking on the up is the Netherlands which has been the most improved nation in medals won in the quadrennium 2016-2020.

Biggest Medal Improvements-041421
Biggest Medal Improvements – form Gracenote

For sure, this edition of the Olympics will be unusual and incredibly challenging to predict due to the many uncertainties and challenges athletes and coaches face. Most of all, we don’t know what crowds (if any) they are going to have in the venues and this might change completely many dynamics.

I was fortunate enough to be in the Beijing, Vancouver and London venues and I can tell you that the crowds had a massive influence on many performances (Usain Bolt sprinting the World Record in Beijing, Canada beating the US in the Ice Hockey Final in Vancouver, and super saturday in London 2012). Will the Japanese athletes benefit more or less from home advantage? Will we be able to witness incredible performances?

Despite the pandemic, there have been some exceptional performances in 2020, are we going to witness something really special this time? Who are going to be the heroes and the villains?