Mark Orams: Next Olympic event - Improving faster than rivals

Eric Murray and Hamish Bond win the gold medal in the men's rowing pair final during the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio. Photo / AP
Eric Murray and Hamish Bond win the gold medal in the men's rowing pair final during the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio. Photo / AP

• Professor Mark Orams is associate dean of AUT Millennium and head of the school of sport and recreation at Auckland University of Technology.

New Zealand's most successful Olympic Games ever has ended. The Olympics once again displayed the reality of elite sport - that unless you are continuously improving, you are falling behind. So after we have celebrated our athletes' successes and enjoyed the moment, it is important that our Olympic performances are thoroughly reviewed, to ensure the key lessons of the Games can be learned.

The lesson from the track cycling results, where New Zealand had a target of improving on its three medals from London 2012 but returned only one in Rio, is that you need to be improving faster than the opposition to succeed at the Olympics.

Great Britain did just that with a staggering haul of eleven medals in track cycling, six of them gold, bettering their performance at their home Olympics four years earlier.

New Zealand track cycling improved on its London times and performances, but not as much as the Brits. So it's not just improvement that's important, but improving faster than everyone else.

Interestingly New Zealand's most successful sporting code at the Rio Olympics, in medals won, was sailing. They collected a gold, two silvers and a bronze. Yachting New Zealand's selection strategy for the Games was controversial. While New Zealanders qualified in all 10 sailing classes, only seven were selected to compete at the Rio Games.

Yachting New Zealand was adamant it would only select those athletes who were "medal capable", which meant both board-sailing athletes and the female single handed class were not selected. A tough call, but with results of four out the seven classes selected winning medals, plus a fourth, a seventh and a tenth placing, it's hard to argue with their approach. Contrast this with swimming, where if you meet the Olympic qualifying time you get selected. No New Zealand swimmers made a swimming final in Rio.

The lesson from this might seem straightforward: set the bar high and select only those "capable" of winning a medal. That way High Performance Sport NZ, national sporting organisations and the NZOC are able to put more resources behind a smaller number of athletes and, if the Yachting New Zealand model works for others, then we should see a greater return on that investment (ie. more medals).

But if such a standard had been adopted we would not have seen Luuka Jones win a surprising silver medal (Jones was ranked 22nd in the world leading up to Rio). We would not have seen the inspiring moment of Nikki Hamblin and American Abbey D'Agostino helping one another after their fall in the women's 5000m heats (Hamblin was not considered a strong medal prospect). We would not have seen 199 athletes proudly representing their country and inspiring others through their struggles, living the Olympic ideals by giving their best. Being an Olympian, whether a medallist or not, is a fantastic achievement.

That said, no one competes at the Olympic Games without striving to win a medal. High Performance Sport New Zealand is often criticised for its singular focus on delivering medals, but it has shown through making some difficult calls on who gets financial support and who doesn't, that it has a successful recipe.

Two significant challenges face them and our national sporting organisations as the focus turns towards Tokyo in 2020. First, how can we retain the talent we have? Of particular concern must be the retention of world class athletes, coaches, sport scientists and the support staff who provide the platform for our success. The achievements do not go unnoticed and we could see a big "brain-drain" as nations with far greater resources seek to poach our best and brightest.

Secondly, how can we continue to improve and do so faster than the opposition? It is clear that sporting success at the Olympic level can no longer be achieved through simple raw talent. A world class sport performance system that never rests on its past successes must continue to be the priority - a system that is future focused, smart, innovative and prepared to make tough calls.

- NZ Herald

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