The oldest track & field blog on the internet

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Was the Team USA performance in Beijing a disappointment?

Was the Team USA performance in Beijing a disappointment?  There's a lot of argument about this.  The Project 30 Task Force was assembled on the presumption that it was.

Medal counts were thrown around, but the fact of the matter is that the 23 medals the USA won in Beijing were well within historical norms.  The percentage of athletes who posted seasonal bests in Beijing was noted, but this is meaningless unless compared to the same analysis of other countries' athletes.

The always-clear-thinking Tim Layden of Sport Illustrated wrote "It is clearly stretching the truth to call Beijing a disaster for USA Track and Field. It is also stretching the truth to call it a success."  Writing on his blog at the time, Doug Logan wrote "I have received e-mails from people across the country, particularly about the relays. They all say more or less the same thing: The dropped batons were reflective of a lack of preparation, lack of professionalism, and of leadership."

Relay flubs aside, the reason the US performance in Beijing was viewed as a failure was not due to a low medal count, but a failure to live up to high expectations.  Exiting the Trials, there were seasoned observers who considered this year's Olympic team to be the best since 1968 (often called our greatest ever).  It turned out not to be.

But can we quantify expectations?  The experts do.  Track & Field News makes medal predictions for every Olympics, and they don't let nationalist passions affect their judgment.  (Not all of their writers are American, either.)  In 2004, they predicted 10 golds and 25 medals overall for the USA; we won 8 and 25.  T&FN knows what they're talking about.

Their immediate pre-Olympic formcharts for Beijing predicted 13 USA gold medals.  We won seven.  They predicted 33 medals, which would have been our highest (non-boycott) total in seventy-six years. We won 23, which isn't our worst-ever, but considering the expansion of women's events over the years, in terms of medals-to-events ratio it's probably our second-worst.

Part of what seemed so disappointing was how often the USA was completely absent from the picture.  T&FN predicted 68 top-ten finishes; we had 50.  They predicted the USA would have a top-ten finish in 36 different events, but it turned out to be just 26—barely more than half of the 47 events contested (and in the men's events it was a minority 11 out of 24).

If we take a closer look at the performance of specifically the men's team in Beijing, it is not pretty.  A strong case can be made that it was the worst ever.  The gold medal total of four is an all-time low; previous low total was 6 (in '72, '76, '00 and '04).  While we didn't break the low end for total medals (13 in '00), we only beat it by one.

But the part that the worst about the men's performance was the lack of depth.  There were a total of 22 top-ten finishes, another all-time low (previous low: 25, in 2000).  Thirteen events saw no American men in the top ten, which is 30% more than the previous-worst performance (10, in 2000).

Field events were the culprit, where had a grand total of three men who made the top ten in those eight events.  No single event sums it up better than the long jump.  Until 2008, the USA had won a long jump medal in every Olympics in which they took part, but this year we didn't even have a finalist.

Why was the performance so much under what was expected?  That's a much deeper issue, and maybe not answerable.  But the general sense among the sporting public--that the USA's track & field program disappointed in Beijing--is more or less on the money.

No comments: