Lessons from the Olympics medal table

By John Reiners

At the time of writing, Great Britain stands an unprecedented second in the Olympics medal table behind the USA (at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics they finished 31st).This has led to a rare opportunity for widespread national rejoicing, particularly by the BBC. The country is not used to sporting success (the performance of its football teams routinely brings despair, ridicule, and shame). Commentators are opining on what this unprecedented success means and how the lessons can be transferred to our working lives and to boost our national prosperity. My immediate thoughts, unsupported by evidence:

  1. The Olympics are no longer widely seen as a test of national strength and a way of exerting soft power. Consequently fewer resources are being devoted to the state-sponsored sporting programs so familiar during the Cold War. Yesterday’s Guardian reported that China is increasingly relaxed about its sporting results now that it is established among the world’s largest economies.
  2. The US and the UK have the most evolved commercial sporting sectors, offering huge incentives for success and, as a result, huge resources to support infrastructure, including training facilities, food and sports scientists, performance coaches, etc.
  3. The use of analytics to drive performance improvement is becoming increasingly widespread and is feeding through into significant performance gains. Though this is a global phenomenon, I suspect that the US and UK are particularly enthusiastic adopters.
  4. Great Britain has benefited from government-sponsored policy to improve Olympic performance, with increased funding targeted at those sports where medal success is most likely, supported by a ruthless performance management regime to ensure results match expectations, or funding is withdrawn.

I’m sure there are many other reasons, including some exceptional individuals, unexpected good or bad performance on the day, perhaps even some medical enhancement. Yet if my hunches above have some validity they point to how increasing investment, professionalism, and the application of technology are driving significant performance gains. And as is often the case, these lessons from elite sport will have implications for economic performance.

I’m certain many of these gains are already feeding through across different sectors of the economy. The countries leading will vary by sector, depending on their particular strengths, the scale of public and private investment and the enlightened approach of management teams. It’s just that these performance gains to productivity and economic performance are harder to measure than using a stopwatch. It’s easy to see the parallels as countries develop industrial strategies prioritising clean tech, advanced manufacturing or smart cities. But it can take a long time and there is no guarantee of success. Great Britain’s Olympic program, allocating lottery funding to sport, started 20 years ago. And with all the funding, professionalism and application of technology you may still end up with the English football team.

John Reiners is Oxford Economics Managing Editor Thought Leadership, EMEA. He manages research programs on a wide range of topics, including digital economy and international trade. He also follows emerging trends, like artificial intelligence and employment. He can be contacted at jreiners@oxfordeconomics.com