31/08/2004 - 22:00

Olympic hangover

31/08/2004 - 22:00


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I hate to be a killjoy when our Olympic athletes have performed so well, but I did feel it was time to put some of the bragging in context – but a little less subjectively than Roy & HG did in the various tallies they provided.

I hate to be a killjoy when our Olympic athletes have performed so well, but I did feel it was time to put some of the bragging in context – but a little less subjectively than Roy & HG did in the various tallies they provided.

The win by the Kookaburras hockey team was cited as the gold that made this Australian Olympics team the most successful in history, by beating the total of 16 gold medals set in Sydney four years ago.

There were also comparisons to the Melbourne Olympics in 1956, when Australia won 13 gold medals.

So were the 2004 Athens games our most successful? On the figures alone, a finance writer like me would say no, definitely not. To compare gold medal counts, or even the full swag of medals, across almost 50 years is not appropriate. Even over four years we need to be careful.

Just as we shouldn’t be surprised that a house in Dalkeith’s Victoria Avenue was worth $271,000 in the 1970s, we ought to put our athletes’ achievement in context first.

The key figures (mainly sourced from www.mapsofworld.com) we need for starters are: Melbourne: 3rd on medal ladder with 13 gold, eight silver, 14 bronze, total 35 medals in 153 events. Montreal: 32nd on medal ladder with zero gold, one silver, four bronze, total five medals in 198 events. Atlanta: 7th on medal ladder with nine gold, nine silver, 23 bronze, total 41 medals in 271 events. Sydney: 4th on medal ladder with 15 gold, 26 silver, 17 bronze, total 58 medals in 302 events. Athens: 4th on medal ladder with 17 gold, 16 silver, 16 bronze, total 49 medals in 301 events.

Already you can probably see where I am getting at with this discussion.

In gold medal terms Australia’s performance has increased its wins by 30 per cent, yet the medals on offer have almost doubled in the same period. In other words, there are a lot more events around to win these days than in 1956.

In overall medal terms, our modern athletes have improved 40 per cent, still below the increase in events that offer a medal.

Alternatively, you could just look at the placing gained by Australia, which would be appropriate because that’s how the athletes’ performances are ultimately gauged, even if they went higher or faster or further than before. In Melbourne, Australia took home the bronze, behind the USSR and the US.

Given the USSR is now defunct, it is hard to know if we would have done better or worse than if we were competing against Russia and its various republics. Certainly with 37 medals it’s hard to believe a break up of the USSR into modern countries would have displaced Australia below fourth, especially as Germany actually competed as one nation (as it did in 1960 and 1964) even though it was politically divided until the late 1980s.

So, arguably, fourth in Athens is at best our equal greatest achievement and likely to be our second best result.

But then again, it is worth noting that China didn’t even compete in 1956 and it came second this year.

In addition, Australia was a lot further away from the rest of the world in 1956, relatively speaking not geographically, of course.

Was it easier or harder to win a medal in Melbourne? If you were an Aussie from an eastern State, there might be a case to answer that many of their competitors simply couldn’t afford the time and cost of the trip. On the other hand, the Cold War was in full swing and the Olympics offered those in the East and West a high-profile to flex their muscles without firing a shot in anger.

So there was significant effort placed on getting athletes from some parts of the globe to the games.

Fast forward to the modern games and one could argue that today’s competition is truly global, where most athletes from even the poorest nations are stars who can afford to train and travel.

So perhaps it is harder for an Australian to win these days.

Well, enough of that analysis. Our athletes did a great job, gave us all a much-needed boost ahead of a long election campaign, proved once again that you can achieve anything if you throw resources at it and, at the very least, they did better than the last time … or did they?


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