The 2016 Olympics in Rio are officially over, and while we're all quietly mourning the loss of all those extraordinary people doing amazing things with their bodies (often while not wearing many clothes), a lot of countries are already wondering about who will win the Olympics in Tokyo in 2020. In Rio, in terms of overall medals, the U.S. won again, but China slipped to second, and Great Britain was third, while Brazil came in thirteenth. But what does it take for a country to utterly dominate the Olympics as the U.S. continues to do, and why do some countries slip while others charge ahead? It's not just about population; while the U.S. is vastly populous at 318 million, it's hardly a patch on China's billion-plus citizens, and India, also with more than a billion citizens, only managed two Olympic medals, period. Clearly there's a recipe here. So what is it?
Beyond the interesting "fact" that a birthday on March 23 could be a good sign of future gold medal potential (it isn't, but it's a nice coincidence for a few gold medallists), the quest to rise up the medal table is a complicated one. As Russia's beleaguered Rio experience points out, state-wide doping isn't the answer. If you want to do it clean, it turns out, you need to have money in the right places, a good focus on women and strange sports, the ability to turn young talent into mature champions, and, to be honest, quite a lot of luck.
Here's the recipe for a country to get itself more golds than it can possibly handle. If all else fails, move to Maryland; they managed to beat all but five nations on the Olympic table all by themselves.
1. Investing Funding In The Right Places For Decades
It's one of the regrettable truths of elite sports: money makes the sporting world go round, just as it does basically everything else. But it turns out that being a rich country isn't in any way a guarantee that you'll come home with Olympic gold; it's the particular way in which you invest money in athletes, training facilities, registration fees, and the other structures around awesome athletic feats that makes for Olympic domination.
Take Great Britain, which has improved its performance in recent decades. Twenty years ago, Team GB, as it's called, started an investment program with funds from the national lottery, and The Guardian points out that as the funds have grown, from $78 million in 2000 to around $367 million for Rio, so has the team rocketed up the medal table. It's a recipe that other countries are mining for lessons: Canada, for instance, has compared its usual stipend for elite athletes of $18,000 per annum to UK athletes' normal $47,000 (though that changes between sports), and wondered if there's a problem.
But it's not just lavish money that produces good results. Australia, despite a record of excellent Olympic performances, a good economy, and a cultural emphasis on sport, had a pretty dismal Olympics, and the press are asking why. The problem appears to be time. As the Sydney Morning Herald pointed out, the Aussies adopted the same funding model as the Brits, but only put it in place four years ago. It seems that you've got to have good funding consistently over decades to start producing medal winners.
2. Prioritizing Women In Sports
There's another interesting aspect of athletic funding that needs to be addressed: if you want to win medals, you have to fund female athletes too. It may seem faintly ridiculous when you look at the sterling efforts of people like Simone Biles and Katy Ledecky, but women's sports can attract less interest and less structural funding than men's. And if your country wants to utterly dominate the Olympic medal table, that is a very silly mistake. Women, as I've mentioned before, made up almost half of all the athletes present in Rio, and a huge swathe of the medals on offer were in women-only competitions. Neglecting that dooms you to failure.
Female involvement isn't just about money, though. The Guardian hypothesized back in July, before America had even made its amazing medal haul, that there were two reasons underpinning the presence of American women as the favorites in many of the sports available: Title IX, and sports participation in general. Title IX, of course, is the federal sex discrimination law, but The Guardian points out that in sporting terms it vastly expanded the amount of female sports played on campuses across the nation, a typical starting-point for elite careers (we'll get to that in a minute). And even for people who weren't at college, it "normalized" the notion of women as sporting figures, and made it easier for funding bodies to justify giving them time, facilities, and excellent equipment.
3. Working To Particular National Strengths
What sports does your country gravitate towards naturally? Australia loves swimming and cricket, while Brazil adores football and volleyball; hot countries often like outdoor sports due to climate, while colder ones work well with indoor ones. You may think this is frivolous, but it isn't. A nation's cultural proclivities towards particular sports go a long way towards building champions: it's more likely to be taught in schools or among the young, funded by big bodies, attended or watched by huge audiences, and given the time and attention necessary to get the big medals.
It's so significant in the overall medal table that the medal predictions made for Rio by Goldman Sachs and other investment banks (yes, economists get involved in the Olympics too) mentioned a bunch of national specialities. According to them, Italians prioritize fencing, Koreans dominate archery, and Asian countries in general perform better indoors than outdoors. (They were right: the Italians got a huge haul of fencing gold and silvers, and South Koreans two archery golds.) They also predicted, accurately, that the UK would dominate "seated sports" like cycling and rowing.
4. Targeting Niche Sports Alongside Big-Ticket Ones
If your country really wants to maximize its medal tally, it has to go beyond the obvious. 100m sprint? Boring. Gymnastics? Old hat. What about dressage, or the modern pentathlon, or kite surfing? It can be an uphill battle to get a champion in these events if there's no sporting tradition of it in your country (there's a reason that European countries with strong equestrian traditions tend to dominate the horsey events), but stick at it. It's what's called the "niche sport" tactic, and it can pay off.
The Center for Sports Engineering Research highlights that niche sports may improve a country's chances of medalling; "in theory," they say, "you would have a better chance of getting to the top in these, simply because there would be a smaller pool of athletes to compete against." But just because it's not known to you doesn't mean that it's not a deep favorite in another country. The modern pentathlon, for example, is based on the duties of 19th-century cavalry officers, from fencing to shooting, and the men's section tends to be heavily dominated by Northern Europeans, while synchronized swimming tends to be battled out between Asia countries and Russia. Go for the "weird sports" and you'll still find a lot of hardened athletes waiting to duke it out.
5. Playing The Long Game
This is the nitty-gritty of a good Olympic program: finding the talent and putting it to work. It's the essence of how the sausage is made, but it's trickier than you'd think to find a talented youngster and get them into a program that hones them into an Olympic star.
You might think that all medal winners are born from the "Olympic factories" of places like China and Russia, state-sponsored academies that took on children from young ages and honed them, often brutally, into champions. (In China, the rising middle class means that those academies are largely shifting away from that model to more casual participation.) But talent turns up in a lot of different places. In the U.S., college athletes tend to be a good place to pick the next big thing; but for other sports, talent searches take place, where young athletes go to training camps to develop their skills and catch the attention of high-end coaches. And these can skew very young: Team USA's synchronized swimming team, for instance, does talent camps for 14-15 year olds.
Once you've got a star on your hands (or a potential one, barring injury or other disasters), it's training time. But the Olympics, as you may have gathered, is the ultimate long game. As much as we adore reading the daily schedules of elite athletes and shuddering at their agonies, it may surprise you to know just how far in advance young athletes plan their preparations for Olympics and world championships. Forbes pointed out that athletic programs for the highest-level athletes are often planned between four and eight years in advance; Usain Bolt's training regime for Rio likely started in 2010 or earlier. It's not week-to-week. At that level, it's not even month-to-month. It's year-to-year.