Sunday, 21 August 2016

How will GB do in Tokyo?

The performance of the GB team in Rio has been exceptional but not hugely surprising. I had projected they would be third in the medal table with 22 gold medals and 56 medals overall with good chances in over 100 events. For those of us who obsessively follow Olympic sports between games it was clear that GB would be extremely competitive in a wide range of events.

2nd place in the medal table was a bonus caused largely by China's decline since topping the table in Beijing - they've finished nine golds and around 15 medals below projections. And, over the longer term, the collapse of sports administration (and state doping programmes) in former USSR and Warsaw Pact countries.

The decline of China is something of a warning to GB. Both China and Australia followed up home games with strong performances in the following Olympics - though GB is the first to get a higher medal total - but both then declined as politicians lost interest and funding reduced.

So can GB buck the trend and continue to improve at Tokyo? A quick overview of the key sports suggests it's possible:

The athletics team will see the greatest transition as it's unlikely that Mo Farah, Jess Ennis, Greg Rutherford and Christine Ohuruogu will appear in Tokyo. As they're responsible for nine out of GB's thirteen athletics medals in London and Rio their retirements will leave a big hole to fill. There have, though, been enough strong performances from young athletes to make it possible. On the men's side Adam Gemili (22) missed out on a 200m medal by thousands of a second. And Matt Hudson-Smith (21) made one of the most competitive 400m finals in history. Andrew Butchart (24) came fourth in the 5k behind Mo Farah becoming the third fastest Brit in history after Mo and David Moorcroft.

On the women's side Dina Asher-Smith (21) came fifth in the 200m and her PB would have won a bronze. She also won a 4x100 bronze alongside two excellent 100m prospects - Desiree Henry (20) and Daryl Neita (19). Cindy Ofili (22) has had a breakthrough season this year and missed out on a 100m hurdles bronze by 0.02 hundredths of a second. Sophie Hitchon (25) won a hammer bronze with the two in front of her too old to make the next Olympics. Katarina Johnson-Thompson (23) clearly has the talent to get a heptathlon gold in Tokyo if she can conquer her nerves and look out for Morgan Lake (19) who reached the high jump final in Rio.

The track cycling team should be more or less the same in Toyko as in Rio bar Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish. And there are a whole load of young cyclists behind them waiting to step up in the case of injuries and early retirements. Look out for Lewis Oliva (24) in the men's sprint; Jon Dibben (22) and Mark Stewart (21) in the pursuit/omnium  and on the women's side Emily Nelson (20) and Emily Kay (21). Whether GB is as dominant in Tokyo as in Rio/London/Beijing will depend on the rest of the world's ability to catch up.

The swimming team probably has the greatest potential for improvement. There are 34 golds available in swimming - 2nd only to athletics - and GB have only won three this century (Becky Addlington x2 and now Adam Peaty). GB's performance in Rio was much better that London - increasing from 3 to 6 medals and another 7 fourth places - nearly all achieved by young swimmers who should be in Tokyo. Peaty is just 21 and I'd love to see him try and develop his 200m breaststroke to give him the chance of two golds in 2020. Siobhan Marie O'Connor (20) came agonisingly close to gold in the 200m individual medley and has the potential to be challenging for 3 or 4 golds in four years time.

James Guy (20) came fourth in the 200m freestyle after winning the world championships last year and could be in the mix for 2 or 3 golds in four years time. Max Litchfield (21) came fourth in the 400 individual medley and has improved his PB a lot this year. As did Ben Proud (21) in the 50m freestyle. Duncan Scott (19) smashed the British record in the 100m freestyle and came fifth in the final. And Chloe Tutton (20) came fourth in the 200m breaststroke having broken the British Record earlier in the year (she'd have won a medal if the Russian Efimova's ban had been upheld days before the games). And look out for a few excellent prospects who were a bit young for Rio - Emily Large (just 15) in butterfly and Tazmin Pugh (16) in butterfly and backstroke.

Collectively this is the most talented group of young swimmers outside of the US and they should peak in Tokyo - potentially winning five or six golds.

The gymnastics squad probably had the most impressive Olympics of any GB team in Rio with almost as many medals as GB has won in all previous games. On the men's side the core of the team Max Whitlock (23), Nile Wilson (20) and Brinn Bevan (19) will be peaking in Tokyo. If they can find one more world class gymnast by then they could challenge for the all-around title (look out for Jay Thompson - 20 - to come through into the senior ranks). On the women's side it doesn't seem the US dominance will be challenged anytime soon but Amy Tinkler (16) - who won floor bronze in Rio - is a huge prospect. Look out as well for junior champions Catherine Lyons (15) and Tyesha Mattis (17) to turn the team into a real all-around medal contender.

The rowing team were one of the few in Rio to miss their medal target even though they topped the medal table for the regatta - so certainly room for improvement. Most of the rowers in the winning men's four and men's eight crews are young enough to keep going and should be able to maintain dominance. Helen Glover (32) and Heather Stanning (33) could just about make Tokyo if they want to mount another defence of their title. The main areas for improvement are on the lightweight side where GB won no medals this time having won three in London and sculling where Katherine Grainger and Vicky Thornley were our only medalists.

Elsewhere most of our Rio champions should be back to defend their titles. Nick Skelton has said he'll retire at 58; Charlotte Dujardin is certainly young enough to compete again but her horse Valegro isn't; Liam Heath is 32 so probably won't make another games; Nicola Adams will be 38 in Tokyo but hasn't ruled out staying on. Everyone else is definitely young enough to come back. Joe Clarke in kayak slalom is just 23. Double diving medalist Jack Laugher is 21 and synchro partner Chris Mears is 23. Giles Scott and Hannah Mills (though not her partner Saskia Clark) will back in the sailing. And Jade Jones (23) / Alistair Brownlee (28) will be able to defend their titles for a third time.

The overall impression is that, as long as national lottery investment continues as roughly the same levels, GB should be able to perform at least as well if not better in Tokyo. If they can maintain dominance in track cycling and push on to five or six swimming golds then a target of 30+ golds and 75 medals should be achievable.


  1. Sam, thank you for all your Olympic tweets. At times it reminded me of what someone once said to John Peel. He listened to the show because he would hear the Liverpool score. When I really needed to know what was happening at Rio I went to your twitter account as the fastest results service. While I've enjoyed Britain being kind of good at a load of sports I'd be okay if we sunk back a bit. The Olympics is beautiful festival that nearly always lifts my spirits (wasn't too keen on Atlanta).So they'll always be fun and I wouldn't want us Brits to get too hung up on performance if things don't pan out in Tokyo. Rio was great because of Max Whitlock. It was also great because of Simone Biles as well. As long as we remember that we'll still have fun. Four years from now. Same time, same place?

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  4. Dear Sam,

    I was wondering about your phrase "If at first you don't succeed, try two more times so that your failure is statistically significant". In which cases one of three results would be statistically significant and why?



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