Paul Lewis: Three predictions for New Zealand at the Rio Olympics

By Paul Lewis

Kiwi sailors Blair Tuke and Peter Burling are locks to win the 49er class. Photo / Photosport
Kiwi sailors Blair Tuke and Peter Burling are locks to win the 49er class. Photo / Photosport

Maybe three predictions can be made with some degree of confidence regarding New Zealand's performance at the upcoming Rio Olympics:

1. Someone will get sick and miss a medal

2. This will be the best Games ever for New Zealand women and

3. Rio will see a record New Zealand haul of silver medals.

Taking the last first, only in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics have our athletes won more than two silvers (four that year). This year, in the lead-up to Rio, Kiwi egos have been vigorously stroked by two international agencies predicting record-breaking medal hauls.

Sports data agency Gracenote predicted 23 medals in all, including 11 golds, seven silvers and five bronzes. This made headline news. It was followed, rather suspiciously, by Associated Press, a highly reputable international wire agency, also predicting New Zealand would win 23 medals - 11 golds, five silver and seven bronze - as they forecast the result of each and every Olympic event to gold, silver and bronze levels.

Gracenote later reduced its New Zealand gold medal tally to seven. This did not make headline news. AP, to my knowledge, have not adjusted their opinion.

So there's been maybe some over-enthusiastic plumping of Kiwi pillows pre-Rio, especially when you realise our biggest medal haul from a single Games in our entire Olympic history is 13 (London 2012, Seoul 1988). Our biggest gold rush was Los Angeles 1984 (eight golds) and our own Olympic chiefs have targeted 14 medals (although they tend to be conservative so there can be much back-patting and cork-popping if the figure is exceeded and a much fatter figure suggested to the government when the next round of funding requests go in).

However, it must be said there is more than a little feeling that Rio 2016 resembles Los Angeles 1984 and not just because of a certain lack of Russians. They boycotted LA in response to the Western boycott of Moscow in 1980 - you spit in my Moscow Mule, I will gob in your Mint Julep... ain't politics grand?

In 1984, our principal medal winners were from canoeing, sailing and rowing with a helping hand from Mark Todd in equestrian. This year, most of our medal predictions centre around canoeing, sailing and rowing - with help from cycling, golf, rugby sevens and shot put.

In fact, neither the Gracenote nor AP predictions mention shot putter Tom Walsh, who looks more and more like he has big-match temperament and a podium finish in him.

Nor did they recognise the consistent excellence of 400m/800m freestyler Lauren Boyle.

She is a decent segue into the impact our female athletes could have this time, maybe even outscoring the blokes for the first time since 1952 (when New Zealand won the grand total of three medals). Rowers Eve Macfarlane and Zoe Stevenson, Julia Edward and Sophie MacKenzie, Emma Twigg, Rebecca Scown and Genevieve Behrent, plus the women's eight are all fine chances, as are champion canoeist Lisa Carrington, golfer Lydia Ko, the inimitable Val Adams, cyclist Linda Villumsen, women sailors Jo Aleh and Polly Powrie, Alex Maloney and Molly Meech, plus the women's rugby sevens team.

So it could be a great procession for the women - until you come to the great uncertainty of sport. Golf is the hardest of all to predict, Adams has perhaps her toughest job yet to win her third gold and anything can happen in sailing, let alone in polluted waters (I can remember boardsailor Bruce Kendall complaining at the 1988 Seoul Olympics after sailing into a submerged fridge).

Sport has a way of punching a large hole in expectations. It's why we all watch it. We all think, for example, crack yachties Peter Burling and Blair Tuke are locks to win the 49er class. But they have to beat, among others, highly-talented Australians and fellow America's Cup sailors Nathan Outteridge and Iain Jensen. The Olympics have a sumptuous graveyard where rest the hopes and dreams of many favourites.

However, aside from Boyle and Walsh, there are other Kiwis who could surprise. I always fancy the chances of our equestrians in the cross-country - even with the late absence of Jock Paget. The women's track cycling pursuit team are perfectly capable of medalling, coached by Sarah Ulmer's partner Mark Cameron, with one Olympics behind them and already ranked fourth in the world.

Women may be what separates Rio from LA for New Zealand. Of the 11 medals in 1984, not one was won by a woman. London 2012 was New Zealand women athletes' best medal total at a single Games, with five. They'll beat that this time.

But 23 medals and 11 golds? Nah, don't think so. I'd go for 16 medals, with six golds - maybe seven if Ko can use that iron will and composure of hers or if, as I suspect, the wily Gordon Tietjens and the New Zealand men's rugby sevens team have a game plan cooked up to disturb Fiji's dream of Olympic gold.

- NZ Herald

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