IN MY OPINION

Home-field advantage crucial for athletes in Olympics

 

lrobertson@MiamiHerald.com

When Christine Ohuruogu finished second in the women’s 400-meter sprint on the Olympic Stadium track, her parents strolled 10 minutes from their house to watch her run. And 10 minutes back.

Ohuruogu, born and raised in Stratford, the revitalized hub of the London Games, even had time between races to “pop round for a cup of tea” with her mum.

“Growing up, we didn’t like Stratford very much,” she said of one of East London’s poor neighborhoods. “We never would have thought that some day something as huge as this would come here and change the area forever.”

Seven years after London won the bid to host the 2012 Olympics, Ohuruogu is proud of Stratford and thankful that many of her friends and relatives were able to visit Olympic Park, which used to be a noxious dumping ground.

It’s been a proving ground for British athletes, who started slowly two weeks ago but with two days left in the Olympics, have collected enough gold medals to rise to third in the tally, behind only China and the United States.

There’s no place like home for winning medals.

It’s an Olympic truth, and Great Britain is affirming that the home-team advantage is significant.

Big investment

Is it lasting? Not necessarily, but Great Britain is hoping that the $15 billion it spent to stage the Olympics was an investment that will “inspire a generation.”

As the Olympics roll toward the Closing Ceremonies finale, there is always talk of “legacies” — economic, cultural, architectural and athletic. Great Britain, suffering from recession, unemployment, urban unrest, obesity and a general feeling that the country has lost its way, would love for the Olympics to serve as a springboard to confidence. Nothing brings on nationalistic chest-beating quite like the Olympic scoreboard.

The lords of the rings do have a grandiose vision of their Games. They may not deliver world peace and brotherhood, but they do deliver gold, silver and bronze for the host nation.

Great Britain, winner of 47 medals in 2008, is up to 57 and should hit the Summer Olympic average for improvement, which is 13 more than it won in the previous Games.

Going back to the 1956 Melbourne Games and excluding the boycotted 1980 and 1984 Games, every host nation has enjoyed a spike in medals. The one exception is the United States, which won seven fewer medals in 1996 than it had in 1992, but that had more to do with the splintering of the Soviet Union than the heat and chaos of Atlanta.

There are variations: China went from 63 medals in 2004 to 100 in 2008 and Greece only gained three medals from 2000 to 2004. But on average, the host advantage is 13, followed by an average decrease of seven four years later. The United States has won 94 medals in London with two days to go. China is in second place with 81 total and Russia is third with 63. The United States has 41 gold medals; China, 37; Great Britain, 25; and Russia, 15.

Even after the decrease, countries are still ahead of where they started, at least for a little while.

“That residual gain is likely due to the continued benefit of infrastructure built for the Games,” Ray Stefani writes, describing his statistical research in Significance magazine. Stefani, professor emeritus at Cal State-Long Beach, has studied home-team advantage in different sports. “Also, many of those athletes enticed into competition by the Games remain in competition four years later.”

Athletes such as Adam Gemili, 18, who turned down a soccer contract eight months ago to focus on sprinting and almost made it into the men’s 100 final. Or the dressage medalist who was a groom 18 months ago. Or diver Tom Daley, only 14 in 2008 and still a teen learning how to beat the Chinese.

Money is, of course, the main reason host nations win more. UK Sport has distributed $400 million in the past four years in order to hit medal targets for specific events. After Great Britain won one lowly gold in 1996, National Lottery funding of sports was approved, and athletes, coaches and high-performance scientists benefitted.

Improvement

In 2012, Great Britain has excelled even more than usual in its “sitting-down sports” of cycling, rowing, sailing and equestrian. Gymnasts won four medals, the Brownlee brothers won two in triathlon and Andy Murray was a beam of light for British tennis. On “Super Saturday” last week, Great Britain’s track and field team won three golds — which was two more than it won in Beijing.

UK Sport pumped $37 million into track and field since 2009, $39 million into cycling and $40 million into rowing. Swimming, however, which got $37 million, did not meet its medal target of six. Basketball and archery were big disappointments.

British women won zero gold medals in Atlanta but have 10 so far, with Jessica Ennis, Victoria Pendleton and Beth Tweddle making waves.

Aside from the money spent on, say, the cycling team’s super-secret wheels and battery-powered “hot pants,” home-team advantage derives from the comfort zone of being in a familiar place, following a familiar schedule, eating familiar food. Not having to travel reduces the chance of illness, as well. Athletes are creatures of habit, and in China, they had to do a lot of adapting

Being home gives a tactical advantage. British athletes know every quirk of the velodrome, the way the wind can change in Weymouth, the speed of the track. Their sports labs and physiotherapists are nearby. Oh, and horses are homebodies, too.

Ohuruogu said home cooking might be wonderful, but hometown pressure is not. She did not want to disappoint but lost her 2008 Olympic 400 title to Sanya Richards-Ross.

“It was quite emotional for me to be so close to my home and to feel like these people are like family,” she said. “But it was hard not to let the emotion of wanting to win distract me from my race plan, and I think it did in the end.”

Kayaker Richard Hounslow said he was “gutted” by pressure.

Yet others, such as boxer Nicola Adams and cyclist Bradley Wiggins, said they were buoyed by vociferous support. Distance runner Mo Farah, who grew up in West London and did not perform up to expectations in Beijing, rode the wave of sound around the final lap of the 5,000 and kicked to victory.

What does this augur for Rio de Janeiro, the 2016 summer host? Pelé visited Casa Brazil at Somerset House — where a large countdown clock flashed 1,456 days on Friday — and expressed concern about preparations for World Cup 2014 and the Olympics. And Brazil is not exactly pulling its weight with 12 medals, only two more than Kazakhstan but seven fewer than the Netherlands.

Perhaps India could use an Olympics. The world’s second-most populous country with 1.2 billion people has won only 24 medals since 1900, which gives it the worst per capita record for medals. In London, the United States has won one medal for every 3 million citizens; Great Britain, one for every one million; China, one for every 16 million; Grenada, one for 110,000, and India, one for every 300 million.

Steel mogul Lakshmi Mittal, Great Britain’s richest man and builder of the twisty red ArcelorMittal Orbit tower in Olympic Park, has donated $12 million to India’s sports programs.

“I’m very disappointed,” he told The Evening Standard. “We are not only encouraging individual athletes, but I think we will also inspire Indian corporations to do much more — and not only engage themselves in one sport and that is cricket.”

How long does the home team honeymoon linger?

Australia, host in 2000, will depart London with about 30 percent fewer than the 58 medals it won Down Under and, worse, defeat against Great Britain in the gold-medal contest. Early on, Australia was in danger of being out-medaled by New Zealand.

“We don’t want to suffer jokes for the next three years and 50 weeks until Rio,” Australia deputy chef de mission Kitty Chiller said.

Tough times

Greece, teetering on the verge of economic collapse, won 16 medals in Athens, declined to four in Beijing and is down to two in London. The Greek Olympic Committee told athletes that if they leave the village early, they would have to pay a $175 refund.

China’s team, funded by its communist government, is flexing its muscle with big hauls in badminton, diving, swimming, gymnastics and weightlifting. But back home, many of its state-of-the-art venues are abandoned, weed-choked, unused.

London hopes to avoid the white elephant syndrome by converting its environmentally sustainable venues into smaller community facilities. Some will be deconstructed.

“The big job is to have a soft landing from an amazing high and continue to get value for the taxpayer from what we put in,” London Mayor Boris Johnson said. “There are a lot of legacies. People are starting to think differently about East London. You can see the Stratford location really taking off in people’s imagination.”

Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt is hoping for a ripple effect so that the Olympics won’t be viewed later as a temporary diversion from economic gloom.

“We really want our gold medals to turn into gold for the economy — helping to boost trade and investment,” he said, estimating that the Olympics will bring a $1 billion infusion immediately, plus another $10 billion in succeeding years.

Dave Brailsford, performance director of British Cycling and general manager of Team Sky, has simpler goals. “We want to strengthen our grass-roots programs, our talent searches in the schools,” he said. “It has to be a continual process of motivating and developing kids — just like Brad — to prevent our surge from being a blip.”

Are 13 medals worth $15 billion? Are 37 medals worth the $40 billion China spent on its extravaganza?

Fool’s gold? Or a gold rush of enrichment that goes beyond the medal podium? As with any win or loss, depends on how you look at it.

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