David Owen

With less than six months to go before the Tokyo 2020 Opening Ceremony, this is about the time in the Summer Games cycle when I start taking an interest in medal prospects.

So it comes as a bit of a shock to discover - with the help of data kindly supplied by Simon Gleave of Gracenote Sports – that Europe may be heading for its worst-ever Summer Olympic showing outside the United States.

Let me explain: Tokyo 2020 will be the 29th Summer Olympics since the sequence started in 1896 in Athens, and in 21 of those events athletes from European countries have won 50 per cent or more of gold medals.

At five further Summer Games, the equivalent proportion has exceeded 40 per cent.

That leaves just two Olympics where the percentage of European victors has slipped below this threshold: the boycott-hit Los Angeles Games of 1984 and the United States-dominated event held in Saint Louis in 1904.

In those far-off days 116 years ago, inter-continental travel was of course much more difficult and the percentage of European golds plunged to a derisory 9.4 per cent.

Based on Gracenote’s current results-based assessment of who this year’s gold medallists are most likely to be, Tokyo 2020 is shaping up to be only the third modern Summer Olympics at which Europeans win fewer than 40 per cent of the gold medals on offer.

The obvious next question is, “Does this matter?”

Here I must confess I am in two minds.

For one thing, the projection might be a touch pessimistic: Gracenote can only repeat what the past-results data are telling it; yet some European teams, notably Great Britain, who are forecast to see a sharp fall in their medal count in Tokyo, have in recent times developed a happy knack of peaking at the right time.

On the other hand, it is not hard to imagine circumstances in which the ultimate tally of gold medals run up by Russian athletes, whether or not competing in neutral guise, is considerably lower than currently forecast.

Whether or not Europe stays above that 40 per cent threshold, Tokyo 2020 looks likely to provide the continent’s third-worst showing by this “percentage of gold medals won” parameter.

European athletes would have to win almost 45 per cent of gold medals – equivalent to 20 gold medals more than currently projected - for that not to be so.

In any case, declining dominance by Europe, the Movement’s heartland, is without doubt a prevailing trend.

Of those five Summer Games at which the European gold medal haul was between 40 and 50 per cent, four - Athens 2004, Beijing 2008, London 2012 and Rio 2016 - have been this century.

Data is showing that Europe may be heading for one of its worst ever medal hauls at a summer Olympic Games ©Getty Images
Data is showing that Europe may be heading for one of its worst ever medal hauls at a summer Olympic Games ©Getty Images

I should also point out here that my definition of Europe is, I think, quite generous: for consistency’s sake I have included gold medals won by all nations who used to be part of the old Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR); I have also included Turkey.

It seems to me that in modern times, with more than 200 countries attending the Games, even 40 per cent is a pretty high proportion of gold medals for a single continent to be winning.

To the extent that declining European dominance is a reflection of greater diversity, then it is probably not a source of concern at all, but rather something to be celebrated.

At Tokyo though, the European decline is a knock-on effect largely of improving performance by Asian athletes, headed by those from Japan and China, ahead of a Summer Games in their region.

Going through Gracenote’s figures, I can count only 13 gold medals – below 4 per cent – that are expected to be won by Africans.

Only seven are projected to go to South Americans, in spite of that region having hosted a number of major multi-sports events, including the Summer Olympics themselves, in very recent times.

By way of comparison, New Zealand alone is forecast to win 12.

Is it possible that Europe’s faltering gold medal count is another symptom of declining interest in the Olympics in the Games’s home region?

European apathy, or outright opposition, to hosting Olympic events is one of the factors responsible for the International Olympic Committee’s decision to call time on traditional bidding races. Is it starting to impact the relative calibre of its Olympic athletes too?

I think it is too soon to know the answer to this question, although one interesting point of comparison does suggest itself.

Football is a sport with which Europe remains utterly obsessed; it is also the most global of games.

Yet, in spite of its worldwide nature, if we confine ourselves to the men’s game, Europe has never known such dominance.

Never mind the club game, where European hegemony is explained by money, the Continent has provided the last four World Cup winners.

This is unprecedented: prior to that, no continent or region had provided more than two consecutive winners, and you have to go all the way back to the 1930s to find the only other occasion on which European teams won even two on the trot.

So it seems we Europeans can still find ways to win when we really want to.

As for our Olympic decline, let’s wait and see how pronounced the recovery is at Paris 2024, our next home Games, before jumping to too many conclusions.