Watching the two Olympic super-powers battle it out at the top of the medal chart, I find myself asking questions about funding that leave me with more questions than answers. Saying that one is funded by the private sector and corporate world and the other by a centralized government is an over-simplification.
For years, Communist bloc countries dominated the medal table with their state sponsored sports academies - millions in government funding being poured in to guarantee success on the world stage. Some of their methods were questionable, but the principle behind the state organized training centers were not. Their not-so secret, secret to success, was to identify talent at an early age and then immerse it in an environment where talent turns into medals. Government run training centers are the main reason why China is near the top of the medal board.
The United States has also always been a huge force as well. The corporate world backs the USOC and its teams, of course. But to pigeon hole their success this way is not only problematic, but wrong. Some sports do organize themselves differently to others, but since the early days of the 20th century the US has been able to succeed in most Olympic sports mainly because of the way the collegiate system works. Athletes have been able to hone their skills in an environment where they go to school, immersed in their sport, and talent is turned into medals. Sound familiar?
Hot on the heels of the big two is Great Britain. On Saturday, the host nation won six gold medals and a silver - the most in a single day for over a century. They won more in one day than they won at every Olympic games between 1972 and 1996. A lack of funding in some sports, and a very traditional amateur approach in others were to blame. The games of 1996 in Atlanta marked the nadir for British Olympic sports. A single gold medal is all that a nation of 60 million had to show for its efforts.
Sure, being the host nation you expect a country to improve its medal haul in front of partisan spectators. But the real turning point for British Olympic success actually came two years before Atlanta, in 1994, with the establishment of the national lottery. The government of the day wanted sporting success but didn't believe in state intervention on the scale of the now defunct Soviet style regimes.
However, they did believe that the central government had a role to play and could help organize the funding. The department of Media, Culture and Sport doesn't give out the money; it oversees 13 independent lottery distributing bodies that do. They have distributed close to $150 Billion since the inception of the lottery.
National governing bodies of sports like cycling, rowing, swimming and many others have been able to identify talent at an early age and send them to centers of excellence where their talent can be nurtured, full time and fully funded. Centrally organized training camps work and the British government has had a hand in these. But the funding has come from an external source.
The gold medal count since 1972 speaks for itself:
1972 - Munich - 4
1976 - Montreal - 3
1980 - Moscow - 5
1984 - Los Angeles - 5
1988 - Soeul - 5
1992 - Barcelona - 5
1996 - Atlants - 1
2000 - Sydney - 11
2004 - Athens - 9
2008 - Beijing - 19
2012 - London - 18, so far...