In the lead up and throughout the London 2012 Olympics, one phrase stuck out: “Inspire a generation,” London’s motto and vision for the Games. There is no doubt that the Games can have a great effect on the nation that plays host to the world for that fortnight, but how long does this last? And does this “inspiration” turn itself into medals?
It is a well-known and publicised fact that a “home advantage” exists in the Olympics. Without fail, every host has performed better at their own Olympics than they could expect to at any other. This happens for a few reasons: extra motivation for the athletes to train in order to perform in front of a home crowd, increased investment in funding programmes by the government, and the support of the crowd on the day. However, Lord Coe’s vision for these Olympics have not been simply about the present, but about the future: to inspire youngsters to get involved in sports and push themselves to new heights. At every Olympics Games, the word ‘legacy’ is thrown about, but do the Summer Olympics create a legacy in terms of Olympics performance? And if so how long does it last?
To find this out, let’s look at the host nations since 1984.
USA (Los Angeles) 1984
South Korea (Seoul) 1988
Spain (Barcelona) 1992
USA (Atlanta) 1996
Australia (Sydney) 2000
Greece (Athens) 2004
China (Beijing) 2008
Great Britain (London) 2012
So to start with, let’s look at the USA’s performance in the Olympics following and preceding their home Games.
Perhaps a better way to have a more fair look at a country’s performance is using “medal points”: a system that awards 3 points for a Gold, 2 for a Silver and 1 for a Bronze.
These show that the USA has hardly varied at all in Olympic performance in the last 40 years, disregarding the anomalies of 1980, which they did not attend, and 1984, which was a heavily boycotted Games. It seems the Olympic spirit is less profound than you might imagine. One reason for this might be the USA’s dominance in the Olympics. The USA win so many events that it is very difficult to make any dramatic improvement on a previous year’s effort. In addition, it seems that it is a country that is already highly focussed on sport and the Olympics, with very high quality facilities, so in a way, there is little that the Olympics bring which is not already there. Also, as it is a much larger country, the percentage of the population who will benefit from new facilities will be much smaller, and thus there will be more of an effect for the city than for the nation. Let’s look at South Korea.
Here we can see a much more profound effect: in 1984, having won the Olympic bid, they win nearly 5 times as many medals as in the last Olympics in which they competed, 1976. Hosting the Olympics in 1988 also gave them a huge boost up the medals table. But what is truly remarkable is that after the Games their medals stayed consistently high: admittedly they dropped from the ’88 spike, but their results post-Games are incredibly high when compared to their showings in the 70′s. It seems South Korea were inspired. Here are the rest of the hosts’ Olympic histories…
Spain also has a significant leap during their Games, and whilst their performance does drop considerably at the next Games. it is still at a higher level than it had been before they hosted. The home inspiration still seems to be going on to a certain extent: Barcelona’s average medal points from ’96 until now is the same as the total number of points between 1972 and 1992! One of the biggest contributors to this medal count was track cycling: something for which Spain was never renowned until their Games, so it seems that the construction of the velodrome in Barcelona created an opportunity and an interest for track cycling. Australia also benefitted, but now seem to be dropping off, with this year’s medal points below their last pre-Games figure. This could just be an anomaly (there is not yet enough data to tell conclusively) or be part of a trend – perhaps teenagers were inspired at Sydney and performed well, but younger athletes who are now of medalling age were less affected by it. If it is age-related, then this suggests that it was the spirit that caused the spike in medals rather than the facilities. Greece forms one of the sadder stories after hosting an Olympics. They seemed to have a boost leading up to their Olympics: in ’96 as they prepared their bid, in 2000 after they knew they’d won it, and then in 2004, they delivered much stronger performances. However, by the very next games, they were down at the same levels as they were before they mounted the bid. The Olympic legacy was not properly planned: the stadia now lie unused and derelict. Perhaps part of it was public attitude: as they struggled to get out of debt as a nation to pay for the Games it had hosted, it seems that the population regretted the Games. This was then compounded by the general economic crisis, causing cuts to the National Olympic Committee. London’s legacy plans seem to ensure that Great Britain will not suffer the same fate, but those in charge must make sure that the original plans are properly upheld. With China it is too soon to get much statistically significant danger, but after a record-breaking performance in Beijing, their performance in London was still much higher than in the years preceding 2008. Having said that, China was already on an upward curve due to its comprehensive youth training programs and strong national pride, so it is difficult to judge the lasting effect of the Games there. For London, though, we will have to wait and see. We will not have the rather happy problem of the USA, namely being too good for the Olympics to improve us much, and we hopefully will have avoided Greece’s situation. It seems we are likely to go the way of Spain, Australia and South Korea, and see a lasting improvement and inspiration reflected in the medal count. So, in conclusion, does the Olympic Games “inspire a generation” of the countries that host it? Does it make a lasting impact? Unless you are the greatest sporting power in the world or poorly managed and funded, then the answer is a resounding yes. We will have to wait and see whether London will add to that evidence, but based on the early reaction of the public and the well-organised legacy plans, I think it is reasonable to think that Great Britain could become accustomed to gaining 50 medals per Games.
We can both say that we have loved having the Olympics in London and hope that everyone who can to watch did too! We hope you have enjoyed this post. If you have, then please check out our last two posts:
The Physics of Field Athletics: Discus, Frisbees and Airplanes - The Discus event seems on the surface to be all about brute strength, but in fact it is one of the most complicated of the four throwing events. Why is that?
The Physics of Diving: Tom Daley and Angular Velocity - How does Tom Daley manage to complete his famous Front 4 1⁄2 dive?
We have now nearly reached the climax of our Physics of Sport series with the arrival (and departure) of the Olympics, so have a look at the posts in the series here.
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