The projection game

The projection game


The projection game

LONDON CALLING: Gymnast Jordyn Wieber have dazzled in the build-up to the Olympics.It has been a year of major moments in Olympic sports, with world championships in track and field, aquatics and gymnastics.  Stars have endured, not without challenges, like Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt. Stars have become bigger stars, like Ryan Lochte and Sally Pearson.

 Stars have emerged, like Jordyn Wieber, the American gymnast, and Yohan Blake, a Jamaican sprinter who is now much more than Bolt’s training partner. Stars have resurfaced, including the Chinese hurdler Liu Xiang and the Australian swimmer Ian Thorpe, who has yet to bear much resemblance to the record-seeking Thorpedo of old.

But what does it all mean for the main event, the 2012 Summer Olympics in London?
The projection game is not simply an aperitif for fans and sports chroniclers. It is increasingly serious business and is even a genuine business for Infostrada Sports, a Dutch-based company that is licensing its research to news organizations to create a virtual medal table while also providing statistics to a number of national Olympic committees, many of whom are doing their own detailed studies based on trends and results. “Sometimes they just want to have the data, but for a lot of them we also do analysis,” said Sam Timmermans, a manager of the analytics department for Infostrada.

“We work with the British, the Australians, the Dutch, the French, the Japanese and others.”

Others with a statistical bent and Olympic connections produce formal projections, among them Luciano Barra, a former Italian Olympic Committee sport director. Infostrada’s virtual medal table, as much a screen grab of the present balance of power as a reading of the tea leaves, takes into account everything from world championships to work a day meets since the 2008 Beijing Games in the 26 Summer Olympic sports and gives greater weight to the more recent and prestigious results.

“We also take into account the variability,” Timmermans said. “If a person is constantly performing well, that will be higher.”

The numbers and recent results at the world athletics championships indicate, for example, that Kenya is on the rise and in position to more than double its gold-medal total from the 2008 Games.

But Infostrada is not always the bearer of glad tidings. The Australians, to cite another example, have been losing medal-table momentum since staging the smash-hit Summer Games in Sydney in 2000.

The Australians won 58 medals, 16 of them gold, in Sydney and were fourth in the overall medal table. They were fourth again in Athens in 2004 with 49 medals and fifth in Beijing in 2008 with 46.

Australians continue to make sport a local and national priority, and from their small population base of about 20 million, they produce a remarkable number of top-flight athletes in a variety of sports. They also continue to produce global stars in Olympic disciplines. The elegant high hurdler Pearson was named the International Amateur Athletic Federation’s 2011 woman athlete of the year and James Magnussen became the world’s premier sprinter at the world swimming championships this year in China.  But the Australians’ Olympic range is shrinking.

The most recent virtual medal table, published this month by the Times of London in conjunction with Infostrada, has them in sixth place overall with 41 medals. John Coates, the Australian Olympic Committee president, sounded even more pessimistic last week, saying that the most recent projections he had received put Australia eighth in London, with 30 overall medals and 11 gold.

 Deflating expectations remains an effective approach to deflecting future criticism. But no matter how many Aussies manage to raise their games, there is clearly not much chance of dislodging the presumptive leaders: the United States, China and Russia. Or should that be China, the United States and Russia?

 There is much debate about who will lead the medal count in London, but virtually none about which nations will be in the top three. Medal counts can be ordered different ways, of course. The most common method internationally is to rank by gold medals. The Chinese won that contest by a Boltish margin in Beijing, finishing with 51 gold medals, well ahead of the United States with 36 and Russia with 23. It was the first time China, the world’s most populous nation, led the gold-medal table, and its 51 were the most at a Games in 20 years.

But China’s 100 overall medals – an auspiciously neat and tidy total in a country where numerology is much more than a parlor game – still left China trailing the United States and its 110, which allowed both rivals to claim a form of superiority. More than three years later, the United States and China remain the most omnivorous Olympic teams. Although China no longer will be playing at home, no tailspin is expected. “They do look as strong and in some ways they look almost stronger,” Alan Ashley, chief of sports performance at the US Olympic Committee, said in a telephone interview.  China won seven of the eight diving titles in Beijing and then swept the diving gold medals at the world championships this year in Shanghai. It also remains a powerhouse in table tennis, badminton, gymnastics and weightlifting, a sport in which the Chinese just led the world championship medal count with 13 (six of them gold) last week in Paris.

But despite China’s continued success, all the major projections at this stage have China winning less than 40 overall gold medals in London. They also project that China and the United States will win fewer overall medals as Russia rises again after its (relative) struggles in Beijing. For the Russians, the challenge of preparing for the 2014 Winter Olympics at home in Sochi is providing a financial and motivational push to the overall Olympic program.

The United States surprised plenty of people this year at the world track and field championships in South Korea, getting unexpected golds in bunches, such as from Jenny Simpson in the women’s 1500 and Jason Richardson in the men’s 110 hurdles. The United States finished with a world-leading 25 overall medals. That hardly guarantees more of the same for London, however. After winning 26 medals, 14 gold, at the 2007 world championships, the U.S. track and field team dropped to 23 and 7 at the 2008 Olympics.

“It’s hard to predict an Olympic performance from the world championships the year before,” Boldon said. “I do think the USA team will do better in 2012 than it did in 2008.”

Continued swimming domination seems a surer thing for the United States, with Lochte, Phelps, Rebecca Soni and the new star Missy Franklin. Then there is Bolt, who, depending on his and Blake’s form, could win four gold medals and cement his place as one of the greatest Olympians ever or, quite possibly, win just one, in the 4x100 relay. The virtual medal table this month has China with 90 medals overall and 38 golds, the United States with 89 and 37 golds, Russia with 81 and 20 golds and Britain with 59 and 15 golds and in contention with Germany for fourth overall.

 Those figures would surely sound better to the host nation if not for Britain’s Beijing performance, when it got on a roll in track cycling and ended with 19 gold medals overall, its best total in a century.

 The number crunchers think that will be hard to top, but then the virtual medal table, with its emphasis on hard data, does not account for fuzzier stuff like emotion or the power boost that might come with thousands of your compatriots roaring as you run or pedal past in the midst of a special summer in London.

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox

Check out all newsletters

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox