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A Cambridge cosmologist examines the details of sporting success with some surprising results.

There are a few certainties accompanying the approaching Olympics. There will an expensive opening ceremony featuring some kind of abstract claptrap that no one understands. There will be an athlete with a funny name or a silly haircut who becomes a cult figure. A fancied competitor will come up short and cry. Any female winner will be instantly christened ‘the nation’s golden girl’. Just as certain will be the crowing from pundits about Great Britain’s medal tally – particularly if they repeat the feat of Beijing and outstrip Australia. And, according to John D Barrow, a cosmologist and Cambridge professor of mathematical sciences who has turned his learned eye to an analysis of sporting success, if the Brits are serious, they should follow the Chinese lead of targeting the ‘easy sports’.

“Ahead of the Beijing Olympics, there was very targeted development in particular sports and there were clearly considerations about the best and most effective ways to maximise the country’s medal hauls,” Barrow explains.

“Where’s the best pay-off? If you’re going to go out there and try to develop a champion in the 100m sprint, then it’s going to be hard – that wouldn’t be a wise choice because so much of it is down to natural ability and you can’t buy that. But, alternatively, if you were to go after rowing or women’s weightlifting, sports with huge premiums on organisation and consistent, heavy training, then that’s more likely to yield more medals.”

Indeed, Great Britain’s recent successes in cycling suggest they have already cottoned on to this equation.

“You look at cycling, one of the sports in which Great Britain have had great success,” he says. “All the cyclists are basically doing the same thing and if there’s any innovation, in the way cyclists ride or the way they train or what they wear, then the whole team gets the benefit. It’s a sport where the different participants are closely linked.

“Athletics, on the other hand, is not even really one sport. The way a sprinter trains and competes is completely different to a pole-vaulter. What works to help a high-jumper succeed has nothing to do with helping someone win the 5000m.”

If the Brits are looking to cash in at the velodrome, though, the Aussies have them in the pool, another of the Olympics’ high-yield disciplines.

“In swimming, for example, there are far too many events – if you can win the 50m freestyle, then you’re probably a good chance to win the 100m freestyle,” Barrow says. “Someone like Michael Phelps, a lot of his events are so closely related – it makes it far easier for him to win a lot of medals.”

Barrow’s observations are not limited only to identifying soft targets for medal-hungry nations hoping to fill their boots. In fact, he has been busy crunching the numbers, calculating a formula that correlates medal success against wealth – specifically, Gross National Product.

“Population and that measure of wealth are the two driving factors,” Barrow explains. “If you plot it on a graph, it’s almost a perfect line going up and across at 45 degrees.”

There are, of course some exceptions, countries that punch above their weight, returning from Olympics with medal hauls disproportionate to the population and economic footprint.

“A country like Jamaica, particularly recently, is well ahead of what it should be able to achieve,” Barrow says. “They’ve really come to dominate parts of track and field, despite having only a few million people.

“There are other factors, of course. The break-up of the USSR really altered those countries’ positions and the most successful country of all was the old East Germany, which was despite a relatively small population. It was, though, part of the state policy to really dominate sport and win Olympic gold medals.”

Like any self-respecting Englishman, Barrow even has a ready-made explanation for the fact Australia, pound-for-pound, out-performs Great Britain.

“In certain countries, the climate favours sport,” he says. “And that’s certainly true in Australia – they love sport; it’s part of the culture and they invest a lot of time and effort in it. It’s also intriguing the number of sports countries participate in. England tries to do every sport and it means the outstanding physical specimens are split up. It dilutes the performance. In Kenya, for example, there are basically two choices – long-distance running and, maybe, football. England, because it has more sports, is constrained. We don’t have any hammer-throwers, for example, because all those people are playing rugby.”

Barrow has even taken a stab at answering the most pressing question is the sporting world – one that is sure to be asked innumerably more times between now and the Olympics: how fast can Usain Bolt go? According to Barrow, the Jamaican sprinter should still be able to shave as much as 0.20sec off his world record of 9.58sec.

“How fast could he go without actually becoming a better runner?” he clarifies. “He has extremely slow reactions off the block – he’s consistently one of the slowest starters. If he improved that aspect, he could shave three-hundredths of
a second off his time.

“During Bolt’s records, he hasn’t had a following wind, which is unusual. And, if he ran at altitude, somewhere like Mexico City, that would also help him go faster, because the air is less dense. When you put it all together – he’s the same runner but we’re just optimising the details – it’s very striking to think he could still get down to 9.38sec or 9.40sec.”

Professor John D. Barrow’s next lecture, in his series focusing on maths and sport, is Citius, Altius, Fortius: Records, Medals And Drug Taking, to be delivered at the Museum of London on Tuesday, January 17. See  gresham.ac.uk/lectures-and-events


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