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How successful can Australia and New Zealand be at the Olympic Games?

Sally Pearson's gold medal in London may end up being her Olympic swansong. If that is the case, it was as fine a finish to an Olympic career as possible. (AFP PHOTO / GABRIEL BOUYS)
Roar Guru
30th October, 2015
6

Notwithstanding the enormous interest generated by sporting clashes between Australia and New Zealand, particularly in rugby union, netball and rugby league, this article focuses on less popular sports that receive most attention in such countries come Olympic Games time.

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While the article will avoid debate about whether substantial public investment to elite sport is justified for the sake of winning global medals, given the reality that both Australia and New Zealand spend substantial amounts of public money on elite sport in these difficult budgetary times, just what are the medal prospects in Olympic Games sports?

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Although it is impossible to know exactly who will win what at the 2016 Olympic Games, as many individual and national training programs will peak for 2016 rather than preceding years, an August 2015 table predicted that Australia would win 42 medals (10 gold) and NZ 19 medals (10 gold), thus suggesting they will place 6th and 9th respectively amongst competing nations.

While this article cannot assess all of the Olympic Games sports with regard to the 2016 prospects of Australia and New Zealand, it will briefly discuss a number of the more popular Olympic Games sports such as athletics, swimming, cycling and rowing, sports where both countries have had past and recent medal success.  
Of the 13 total medals won by New Zealand at the 2012 London Olympic Games, 5 came from rowing and 3 from cycling.

Of Australia’s 35 medals won in London, 10 came from swimming, 6 from cycling, and 5 from rowing.

But with global sports continuing to make greater appeal to more countries, including authoritarian China which seeks to express its growing political and economic prowess through Olympic Games medal success, just how successful can Australia and New Zealand remain in future?

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As noted in 2013, with the BRIC economies (Brazil, Russia, India and China) all having talent pools much bigger than Australia, with many more nations spending public resources on elite sport, it remains to be seen how well Australia could remain a top 10 medal-winning nation at the Olympics.

While it was noted that Australia could still succeed through improved efficiency over time, such as through talent identification and development, sport systems, technology innovation, sport science, and sport policy research, time will tell just how successful Australia and New Zealand remain.

As of 2015, however, Australia and New Zealand were still faring well in a number of the more popular Olympic Games sports mentioned above.

At the 2015 world rowing championships, New Zealand won 9 medals (5 golds) from the 22 events contested (men and women), and Australia won 3 medals (one gold) not counting para-rowing events.

At the 2015 world track cycling championships, Australia won 11 medals (4 gold) from 19 events (men and women), and New Zealand 4 (1 gold).

Of the four individual events contested at the 2015 world road cycling championships, Australia and New Zealand won 1 medal each, a considerable achievement given the popularity of cycling around the world.   

But what of athletics, arguably the most prestigious of Olympic Games sports where athletes from all nations (rich and poor) are hardly impeded by the need for expensive training facilities or assistance in the same way as demanded by rowing and track cycling alone.  

At Rio in 2016, Australia and New Zealand will have track and field athletes capable of winning global championship medals, notably Sally Pearson for Australia (100m hurdles) and Valerie Adams (shot put) who both have been successful at recent past global championships.    

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While Australia won just two silver medals at the 2015 world championships in the men’s long jump (Fabrice Lapierre) and Jared Tallent (50km walk), although New Zealand had no medal success, both countries also had a number of top eight results, a considerable achievement in this most competitive of major Olympic Games sports.

For Australia, in addition to the two medals already mentioned, Australia achieved 8th places in several events: the men’s 20km walk (Dane Bird-Smith), the women’s high jump (Eleanor Patterson), and women’s discus (Dani Samuels).

For New Zealand, it achieved 6th place in the men’s 1500m (Willis), and 4th and 8th place in the men’s shotput (NZ Tomas Walsh and Jacko Gill).

However, winning global athletics medals may become an even greater challenge for Australia and New Zealand as more athletes from poorer countries seek global medals. After all, athletics is one of the few traditional Olympic Games sports that has a number of income earning sources: corporate sponsorship after global medal success; an annual Diamond League series which provides equal prizemoney to each track, throwing and jumping event; and regular global championships which can offer national monetary incentives and/or prizemoney, including the Olympic Games and world championships (both outdoors and indoors).

While Kenya, Ethiopia and Jamaica alone illustrate the prowess of athletes from poor countries to win global running medals, winning 31 medals from the 22 male and female individual running events at the 2015 world championships, male athletes from Kenya, Jamaica and Egypt also won medals in the javelin and shot put events.

As a recent article noted, with Kenya winning medals in events outside middle and long distance, including the 400m hurdles and javelin, sports are indeed becoming a way for youths from poor backgrounds to earn a living for themselves and/or even fund their return to education which many Kenyans cannot afford.

And the success of Kenya athletics has little to do with government agency leadership from the top down, which may provide some valuable lessons for Australia given that our running performance is arguably at its lowest ever level despite substantial public resources being allocated through the latest technology and supposed best coaches.   

For example, the Kenyan who won the men’s javelin gold medal at the 2015 world championship, Julius Yego, does not have a coach and watched YouTube to improve his training techniques and skill after finishing 12th at the 2012 London Olympics.

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And despite the inadequacies of Athletics Kenya, which lost sponsorship deals in March 2015 on the basis of disorganisation, Kenya has an institutional structure that encourages professionalism through high schools promoting athletics with knowledge of its economic potential, and scouts spotting talent “from primary and secondary schools all the way to clubs”. These factors may be just as important to Kenya as other factors such as the nation having considerable talent along with an intense work ethic, with the latter noted by the British World and Olympic champion Mo Farah from training with Kenyans.

To conclude, Australia and New Zealand athletes will win many global medals at the 2016 Olympic Games and beyond.

Australia and New Zealand may continue to excel in certain sports, such as swimming, cycling and rowing alone, with likely success to be aided by its longstanding cultural interest in such sports aided by ongoing public financial support given the requirement for substantial resources.

Given that Australia are New Zealand compete in many sports against many other developed nations (and China) who also offer extensive public assistance, any medal is an achievement and is aided by good coaching and effective strategies, although this article makes no judgement about the extent and type of public assistance. The extent of public resources allocated to elite sport is a matter for ongoing public debate.   

But when it comes to athletics, a sport where more athletes from poorer nations have a greater financial lure to do well and only need the most basic of facilities, I suspect global medal prospects will become even harder for Australia and New Zealand given that success in track and field has much less to do with the allocation of public resources.

I am thankful that athletics remains a most prestigious Olympic Games sport where national success is less dependent on resources and provides an opportunity for all athletes (both rich and poor) to succeed.