Paul Lewis on sport

Paul Lewis is the Herald on Sunday's Sport Editor

Paul Lewis: Dissecting Delhi

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The closing ceremony of the 2010 Commonwealth Games. Photo / AP.
The closing ceremony of the 2010 Commonwealth Games. Photo / AP.

Statistics and empirical measurements are supposed to be exact sciences; certain in their precision. Except when it comes to Olympic and Commonwealth Games.

Ask people on the street how they felt New Zealand fared at the last two Commonwealth Games and the answer will almost certainly be words to the effect of 'not bad' or 'average' or maybe even 'good' - and an oft-quoted line will be that we do well for a country of small population.

The statistics show that, in the last two Commonwealth Games (Melbourne 2006 and the just-completed Delhi Games), New Zealand's Games performance has slipped below historical levels of achievement.

Yet public perception does not mirror that. Part of the reason for that was that New Zealand's medal effort came with a rush at the end of the Delhi Games and promoted the feeling that all was well. It is also because Sparc, sport's funding body, has regrettably stopped its practice of setting targets for the numbers of medals they feel a New Zealand team should win at Commonwealth and Olympic Games.

They stopped because they came a gutser in 2006 when they set 45 medals as a goal and 31 were returned. The blowback was considerable and the forecasting halted.

But if there is not some easy, available measure how are we to know whether our Games performances are up to scratch? Sparc has a vested interest as they are the gatekeepers of our funding of elite athletes and high performance systems. While there is no doubt they are a genuinely committed and motivated organisation, there is equally no doubt that what they do - and the results of same - is not readily transparent to the man in the street.

Politicans are also not necessarily a good barometer, even though Trevor Mallard and current Sports Minister Murray McCully are well regarded by the sporting community generally when it comes to seeking and retaining money for development. But politicians do not always have the same visibility when things go wrong or stagnate.

So we come back to statistics. Like all stats, they depend on variables like the base on which they are configured and how they are applied; different applications can lead to different results.

Medal tables are flawed, no matter which way you tweak them (straight medal count; medals per head of population; medals per million people and GDP per medal). Even allotting points (like five for a gold, three for a silver and one for a bronze) can provide different results, depending on the value accorded each medal.

If you look at the Commonwealth Games results of the last 40 years - from the Edinburgh Games of 1970 to the Delhi Games of 2010, some solid themes begin to emerge.

* New Zealand's six gold medals in both Melbourne and Delhi are the smallest haul since the Games of 1994, 1982 and 1978 (five golds won at each). Sparc took over funding of New Zealand sport from the old Hillary commission in 2002.

* The total medal count of 31 (Melbourne) and 36 (Delhi) were the smallest since the 34 of 1998 (Kuala Lumpur) and 26 of 1982 (Brisbane).

* This diminished return has occurred while the number of Games sports has grown. In 1970, there were only nine sports contested and a grand total of 375 medals. Even by 1994, there were still only 10 sports. By 1998 - there were 15; 17 in Manchester in 2002; 16 in Melbourne and 17 again in Delhi with a total of 828 medals on offer. So, in theory, there have been more opportunities to win more medals in the years since 1998 yet, with the exception of Manchester 2002 (45 medals), New Zealand's medal tally has been at the lower end of the spectrum.

* If you compare the sports in Edinburgh to those in Delhi, among the 'new' sports are netball, sevens, shooting and squash - responsible for four of New Zealand's six gold medals this year. In 1970, New Zealand won only two golds. Take away the golds won in the 'new' sports in Delhi and there is an (admittedly simplistic) argument that we have not progressed in gold medal terms in traditional Games sports (cycling and athletics would dispute that).

Percentages:

Medal tallies can be flawed, however, by a nation enjoying salad days or by strength in depth in one or two sports. Jamaica, for example, had a fine Olympics in 2008 thanks to track star Usain Bolt and his cronies. Does that make them an all-round sporting power? Hardly.

Maybe a better way to compute sporting achievement, in hardware terms at least, is percentage of medals won against medals up for grabs. This at least takes into account the different number of sports and events contested at different Games.

If you track New Zealand over the last 40 years of Commonwealth Games, our medal percentage has typically been around five per cent. About 1 in every 20 medals is won by Kiwis.

In Melbourne (4.2 per cent) and Delhi (4.3 per cent), New Zealand's percentage of medals awarded was reduced - our lowest showings since Edinburgh, 1970 (3.7 per cent). Best 'away' results (Games such as Auckland 1990 and Christchurch 1974 can be skewed by home advantage) were Edinburgh 1986 (7.6 per cent of medals won) and Victoria in 1994 (6.1 per cent).

Population:

The usual form of rationalisation of New Zealand's results is that "we are just a small country." Some satisfaction is derived when medal tables are calculated on a medals-per-capita basis. This can also be misleading.

In Delhi, New Zealand managed to sneak one place above Australia when the medal count was recalculated on a 'population per medal' basis. Netball's last-minute gold medal meant New Zealand rose into 10th place, just a fraction ahead of Australia - but behind such small nations as Nauru (top, with 5,000 people per its two medals won), the Isle of Man, Samoa, Tonga and the Bahamas.

If the count is adjusted for countries which won 10 medals or more, New Zealand comes in second, behind Cyprus (population 1.1 million).

However, the thinness of this basis is exposed when you look at the Olympic tables of the past few Games.

In the 2008 Beijing Olympics, New Zealand came 10th on a population basis - but Australia came third. In 2004 (Athens), Australia came second on a per capita basis. In 2000, Sydney, they came fourth. In each case, New Zealand was well below them.

In addition, even if China had won every medal up for grabs in Beijing, they would still have finished 18th on the per capita table, below Ireland.

So that's one myth exploded. It's maybe also time that New Zealand stopped using the "little country" argument.

We never, for example, apply it when discussing renowned world beaters like the All Blacks or Valerie Adams. It seems it is used these days only when we are in rationalising or apologetic mode.

Advance Australia:

The Australians are the yardstick.

They have headed the medal table at all Commonwealth Games since 1970, except for Edmonton, 1978 (third) and Edinburgh 1986 (also third).

On a percentage basis (medals won against all medals awarded), Australia typically hovers on or near the 25 per cent mark - one in four medals are won by The Lucky Country. Their worst result was in 1978 when they won only 21.3 per cent of available medals.

Interestingly, Delhi in 2010 was their worst percentage result since then, even though they headed the medals table and won almost twice as many golds as India, the second best in medal terms. They won 177 medals of the 828 available (21.4 per cent).

That perhaps puts New Zealand's performance at Delhi more in context - and the Australians were alarmed at theirs and are taking steps (see accompanying story).

But any view of Australia's progress shows that, with some exceptions, they have consistently won the most medals and the highest percentage of those available across all competing countries at Commonwealth Games over the last 40 years.

So now we know it can't just be fobbed off as a population thing, what are Australia doing and what are they doing that New Zealand isn't?

- Herald on Sunday

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