Anyone following the Olympics through the British media will no doubt have picked up on the triumphant mood in the country, with Great Britain (or is that team GB nowadays) taking home a medal haul unmatched in a century.
However, not every nation has exceeded their expectations at the Olympics and in Sweden the mood at SVT (the national broadcaster) has been almost funereal, following the country’s haul of just six medals, with not even one of them being gold (which compares to four golds – most of them in the high-profile athletics competition – in Athens). To make matters worse, Sweden’s smaller Nordic rivals Norway, Finland and Denmark have all won gold medals, and the regional humiliation really would have been absolute had tiny Iceland been able to beat France in the men’s handball final. When SVT repeatedly showed coverage of Susanna Kallur falling, almost literally, flat on her face at the first high hurdle, it was difficult not to view this as a metaphor for the country’s performance as a whole.
So what lies behind the country’s poor performance? A quick look at where the gold medals were won last time in athletics shows that the talent pool was fairly small in this discipline and always potentially susceptible to injuries and bad luck. The triple jumper Christian Olsson has been plagued by injury ever since winning gold in Athens at the age of 24 and he didn’t compete in Beijing – depressingly there has been talk of him retiring. Meanwhile, high jumper Stefan Holm (another winner in Athens) had a disappointing Olympics finishing just out of the medals in fourth place.
But the biggest loss of all has nothing to do with injury. Had Carolina Klüft competed in the heptathlon (where she has dominated for over five years) it would be reasonable to expect that Sweden would have won at least one gold medal. Klüft though made a surprise announcement earlier this year that she would not to compete in this event and planned to focus on the long jump instead where, in the end, she finished well out of the medal hunt. When asked about the decision after the event Klüft was unrepentant saying that she felt it was impossible to compete in the heptathlon, having run out of desire after years at the top.
Whilst those who toil and sweat for years to get to the top may find Klüft’s decision to turn down an almost certain gold medal unfathomable, I would applaud it. A top athlete’s motivation comes as much from within as from our external surroundings and, if Klüft felt that she had none, it was appropriate to make an unconventional decision. In a way one could say it was Sweden’s bad luck that Klüft was so dominant – had she been a marginally less able all-round athlete she might have found the heptathlon challenging enough whilst still being good enough to ensure a gold medal.
Elsewhere, Sweden’s lack of a gold medal can be due to missing the crucial last bit of skill or luck as five silvers could testify. A medal in sailing where Sweden were ahead of Britain going into the last day only to be pipped at the end seems to neatly summarise the different experience of the two countries.
Over the Øresund, the mood in Denmark is also philosophical but for a different reason. Team Denmark had set a target of seven medals and this was met precisely (with two of them being gold). However, whilst it was no great surprise that the men’s lightweight fours (rowing) and the men’s cycling pursuit team won medals, the identity of most of the other medalists raised eyebrows. Denmark won first medals for decades in swimming and dressage, and whilst a medal in sailing was not unusual, the fact that it was gold for the 49er boat was as surprising as the last day of that competition was tense.
On the other hand, some high-profile entrants failed with the men’s handball team (European Champions in January) finishing a disappointing seventh; no medal being won in badminton for the first time in four Olympics; Joachim B. Olsen, a shot putter, not reaching the final; and Michael Maze, a table tennis player, being knocked out in the first round. Both Olsen and Maze had won medals in Athens and neither is especially old, although Olsen’s poor performance can be partly explained by recent injury problems.
This has led a lot of journalists to comment that those athletes receiving the most support from the public purse have performed poorly whilst many of the medal winners receive little or no support. Sports psychologists have followed this up by suggesting that generous public funding may have led to some athletes being in the comfort zone and not having sufficient motivation (an argument which will no doubt be familiar to followers of English cricket). Kai Holm, Denmark’s IOC member, suggested that instead of funding handball (where there is only one medal available) Denmark should consider funding sports where there are numerous medals up for grabs. Brian Mikkelsen, the Culture Minister, went even further when he mentioned how his British counterpart had explained to him over breakfast how Britain had consciously targeted “soft medals” with particular reference to the track cycling team and Mikkelsen suggested that Denmark could do likewise.
Overall the first issue coming out were the overall funding of elite sport, where Team Denmark were quick to point out that successful countries like Australia, Great Britain/UK and the Netherlands had increased funding significantly. It was further noted that the budget of the British sailing team was bigger than that of the whole of the Danish Olympic team.
To balance the picture of elite funding it is worth mentioning that public money is spent on grass-roots sports in Denmark where even the smallest village seems to have a multi-purpose sports hall and well-kept municipal grass pitches. I would argue that the emphasis here on increasing participation, giving a sense of belonging to a local community, and encouraging people to participate in sports themselves rather than simply spectating, with the knock-on benefits for the health of the country is a whole, is the correct one.
The second issue was whether the correct sports are being funded although, I believe, this matter is not as simple as it would first seem. Whilst the badminton team did not bring home a medal it was difficult to say the performed poorly against a strong field of ultra-motivated Asians. In the men’s singles Peter Gade performed creditably enough when bowing out to the eventual tournament winner and the men’s doubles team came within inches of a medal, even having a bronze medal point.
The handball team never came close to reaching the heights that they did in the European Championships but in many ways this simply shows that there are five or six nations in Europe of very similar ability and the eventual winner of the tournament depends on the teams’ form in the precise two weeks of the tournament and injuries to key players. And medals are not necessarily equal. Whilst Denmark’s bronze in dressage counted on the medal table the event attracted only a fraction of the interest that the handball matches did. Plus, on top of that, in supporting the handball team you are not just supporting them for the Olympics but for the biennial World Cup and European Championships as well, with Denmark’s victory in January prompting a massive reception in Copenhagen’s Town Hall Square reminiscent of the scenes following Denmark’s victory in the football European Championships in 1992.
Overall, the debate about which sportspeople to fund and how much to use in this area will continue for some time in Denmark, and the discussions in Sweden as to how to improve are likely to be even more intense. London is not the only place which has thinking to do before 2012.