by Brina Sept. 23, 2018
Japan is a team on the rise. Even with Sae Miyakawa off of the Worlds team, they’re strong contenders for a team medal for the first time since they won bronze in 1966. And China would love to have the depth of Japan’s B-team and even their C-team.
During the Rio quad, Brazil was a team on the rise. China’s only team gold at the Olympics came in 2008 in Beijing, and the US first cracked that ceiling in Atlanta in 1996.
All this begs the question: how big is the Olympic boost for the home team?
There are a lot of reasons why home teams tend to do better in the lead-up to the Olympics. High performing veterans tend to stick around for the chance at an Olympic moment on their home turf. Recent examples include Beth Tweddle and Daniele Hypolito. Furthermore, governing bodies have been known to bring in high-powered coaches to whip the national team into shape. Australia hired Peggy Liddick in 1997, and Brazil welcomed Alexander Alexandrov in 2013.
But perhaps most importantly, host governments tend to invest in sports in hopes of upping the medal count of the home team. The UK, for example, tripled funding for Olympic sports between Athens and London. These investments have the potential to not only bring in the Olympic medals but also set up teams for future success.
To see how much all of this matters, I tracked how Olympic host countries placed in World and Olympic competitions during the quads before, during, and after they hosted. Check it out in the graph below.
Women’s Artistic Gymnastics team placement at World and Olympic games
Note: Team final placement is used when possible, with qualification placement used for teams that did not make the final. Results for the 2004 Olympics are reported using Dong Fangxiao’s scores, which have since been struck from the record.
The black line in the center marks the year when each country hosted the Olympics. If hosting gave a big boost the home team, we would expect all the lines rise up at that point. This pattern is somewhat present, especially in the four years prior to the hosting year— but there’s also a lot of noise. So let’s break it down country by country.
Team USA is one of the best examples of a team that really had a breakthrough performance at their home Olympics. After four straight podium finishes in 1991, 1992, 1994, and 1995, they finally reached the top position in Atlanta. At the time, this success was largely attributed to the Karolyis and the example they set for the rest of the US coaching community.
But it’s also hard to believe that a home field advantage played no role – gymnasts from other countries even complained that they couldn’t hear their floor music because the fans were so loud. The rest, as they say, is history. The Magnificent Seven became national celebrities, and they might even be the reason why you still follow gymnastics today.
What’s perhaps more surprising is how ephemeral this success turned out to be. The World championship title evaded Team USA until 2003, and they didn’t win another Olympic title until the Fierce Five took the world by storm in 2012. Whatever success American gymnastics enjoyed in the early 1990s certainly wasn’t due to a strong, institutionalized system, and the gymnasts of the next decade suffered for it.
Similarly, the Chinese team peaked in Beijing, though this was somewhat less of a surprise coming off a win 2006 and a second place finish in 2007.
It’s impossible to talk about the success of Chinese gymnastics without mentioning the heavily centralized system made possible by the statist government. The project of juguo tizhi, or a “whole state system” in support of sport, went into overdrive during the lead-up to Beijing. The system of testing schoolchildren and funneling the most promising into state-run gymnastics programs worked— and it kept Team China on the podium for the better part of a decade even after the glory days of Beijing.
However, in recent years, China has begun to feel the downside of such a system. With most gymnasts trained in a similar style, the team is spoiled for choice on bars and beam while remaining essentially incapable of fielding internationally competitive scores on vault and floor. I have to think that these struggles are tied to the new appreciation for privately owned recreational gyms, with national team staff hoping that such clubs will give Chinese gymnastics more diversity and depth.
Australia, Great Britain, and Brazil all did better at their home Olympics than might have been expected based on their performance about five years earlier. However, with expectations soaring in the Olympic year, each team also had reason to be disappointed.
After years of struggling to crack the top ten, Australia enjoyed their best-ever placement at the 1999 World Championships when they snagged fifth place. However, as a result, ending up in seventh at the Sydney Olympics was a bit of a letdown for the Australian team.
Most unfortunately, the team final that year featured just six teams, meaning that most of the Australian team only got to appear before the home crowd in qualifications. Perhaps worst of all, when it was discovered that Chinese gymnast Dong Fangxiao was underage, her scores were stricken from the record. Had this been discovered at the time, Australia would have placed sixth in qualifications and gotten to compete in the team final. It’s easy to understand why 2000 ended up as a disappointment for Australian fans.
In any other era, a sixth place finish would have been cause for celebration for Team GB – but like Australia, the British ladies finished fifth at the World Championships prior to the Olympics, rendering their Olympic placement less than impressive. As the Daily Mail put it, “It is a sign of the improving standards of this sport in Britain that Tweddle… seemed slightly disappointed not to have clinched fifth spot.”
Nevertheless, the British ladies have enjoyed unprecedented success since 2012, earning a team bronze in 2015 as well as numerous other individual Olympic, World, and European medals. This suggest that investments from the Olympic period set up a lasting program. A 2010 BBC article, for example, credits Team GB’s success to its switch to a semi-centralized system during a funding draught the decade before. With a strong network of gymnastics clubs in place, the system was perfectly primed to absorb the increased funding that came in the ramp up to the Olympics, and it continues to thrive today.
By all rights Brazil should have seen their team’s eighth place finish as a major accomplishment. They made the team final and did better than any other Brazilian team had for years. However, after a fifth place finish in qualification, coming in last in the final was a bit of a letdown. And, with Brazil regularly ending up in the top ten during the glory days of Diane Dos Santos, Daniele Hypolito, and Jade Barbosa, eighth place was well-trod ground for Brazilian gymnastics – and even for some members of the 2016 team.
However, the Rio Olympics did reveal at least one achievement of Brazil’s investment in the sport. Flavia Saraiva, Rio’s hometown hero, was first introduced to gymnastics through a free program at a government-sponsored gym for children who might not otherwise be able to afford to participate in sports. With her breakout performance at the games, the gym where she started can only be called a successful government initiative.
Japan has established itself as a regular in the team final over the past decade, peaking with a thrilling fourth place in Rio. Building off of this strong base, their depth has only continued to grow. And with the sudden downfall of Romania, the Big Four have become the Big Three and bad day from Russia or China could leave an open spot on the podium.
Will 2020 be Japan’s year? Only time will tell, and in a sport like gymnastics, the answer might ultimately depend on the right people being healthy at the right time. But like the US and China – and unlike Australia, Great Britain, and Brazil – Japan is starting with a solid tradition of top-eight finishes. What’s more, the country already uses the sort of semi-centralized system that has lead to success in the US and is now developing in China.
The Olympic boost can help any program outperform its past finishes by a bit, but it takes more than a few years to build a strong gymnastics program. Olympic boost or no, Japan looks to be well on its way.
Tags: Fun with Score Data, Olympic Talk