The Olympic games will get underway in London on July 27 with an opening ceremony staged by Slumdog Millionaire director Danny Boyle that is bound to contain a few unexpected treats. But will there be any surprises when it comes to the medals?
We asked our readers last week to predict which regional bloc would take home the biggest haul: Apec, the EU or the rest of the world. The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, a forum of 21 Pacific Rim countries, contains perennial contenders Australia, China and the US, while Europe is sure of a reliable haul of medals from Britain, France and Germany, plus decent contributions from Italy, Spain and Holland.
The Europeans will also have home advantage, but voters in our poll reckoned Apec will bag the most medals. That would be consistent with the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, when the US and China topped the table with 110 and 100 medals, respectively — a huge margin over Britain, the EU’s most successful nation with 47 medals.
In all, Apec members won 432 medals, while the EU bagged just 280 and the rest of the world won 246. But the picture changes considerably if we consider the whole of the European Olympic delegation as a block, which then includes Russia and other members of the former Eastern bloc, such as Ukraine, Belarus, Poland and Hungary.
Counted like this, Europe won 473 medals during the 2008 games.
However, Olympic rankings are based on gold medal counts by convention. (The International Olympic Committee doesn’t officially recognise rankings, as part of its increasingly strained commitment to the ideals of the Olympic movement. But it does publish the tables, “for informational purposes”.)
This way of counting suits Asia even better. China, Korea and Japan all rank higher by gold medals than by overall medals, which helped Apec to win 157 gold in 2008 compared to 134 for Europe.
China, in particular, won a huge haul of gold medals compared to silver or bronze. This could be a product of Chinese enthusiasm for gold, but, more likely, it is a result of the state’s aggressive investment in certain sports, such as diving, gymnastics, shooting and weightlifting, where it won most of its gold medals in 2008.
Chinese competitors are so dominant in table tennis (or “whiff whaff”, as London’s mayor calls it) that few other nations get a look in — it has won 18 of the 20 medals on offer during the past 20 years. It also has a long history of dominance in badminton.
Britain has achieved better results thanks to the additional funding that has been available since the founding of the National Lottery during the mid-1990s, as well as increased government support in the run-up to the London games. During the past four years, public and lottery funding for Team GB has totalled around $500 million.
Its biggest success has been in cycling, where it picked up seven gold medals. One of those winners, men’s individual pursuit champion Bradley Wiggins, is now on course to becoming the first British winner of the Tour de France.
The other side of the coin is the cost of being an Olympic host. Goldman Sachs predicts that the Olympics will boost the British economy by 0.3% to 0.4% during the third quarter as all the games-related spending feeds growth, but nobody takes this seriously as a measure of success.
Under-used and decaying stadia are the legacy that most Olympic hosts end up with, including even the most recent games in Sydney, Athens and Beijing. In most cases, the long-term economic payoff is hard to demonstrate.
In London, “legacy” and “sustainability” have become buzzwords (regularly lampooned on BBC sitcom Twenty Twelve, which has come so close to the truth at times that the real London Legacy Development Corporation suspected a mole), but even today, 10 days before the games start, the future of the main stadium is still unclear.
There is a broader lesson in the successes and failures experienced in both China and Britain: investing in Olympians has generally produced better results than investing in Olympic infrastructure. Governments get the best value for money when they invest in people.
That is an Olympic ideal worth championing.