More Than the Medals: Making Sense of Athletes’ Performances at the Olympic Games.

More Than the Medals: Making Sense of Athletes’ Performances at the Olympic Games.


When it comes to the Olympic Games, Medals Matter.

There’s a medal table, a gold medal count, a total medal count, a medal count by sport, a medal count by nation and even a medal count by geographic region.

We know that medals count – because there is a medal count!

But when it comes to completing a de-brief – a post Olympic Games performance review, medals are only one indicator of the performance of an athlete or coach or team or nation.

It’s More than the medals: making sense of athlete’s performances at the Olympic Games.

The Five Questions You Have to Ask when undertaking a review of the performances of athletes, coaches, teams and nations at an Olympic Games:

So how do you make sense of the performances of athletes, coaches, teams and nations at the Olympic Games IF you don’t use the Olympic medal table as your measurement tool?

If you want to look past the hype and the spin and the media madness and gain a real understanding of what happened to your athletes and your sport at the Olympic Games, you have to ask five key questions…….

  1. Did the athlete equal their own personal best performance?
  2. Did the athlete improve on their own performance from the Olympic selection Trials?
  3. How did the athlete perform relative to their own nation’s national record?
  4. Did the athlete improve from the first round to the next round during the competition, e.g. did they go faster / improve their performance from heats to finals, from qualifying round competition to the finals etc.?
  5. Did the athlete improve compared to their own performance at their previous major international competition?


First look at “us” before looking at “them”.

The easy and obvious thing to do after an Olympic Games is to look at “them” – i.e. the athletes from other nations and try to compare “us” with “them”.

The Olympic medal table is an indication of where each nations sits relative to other nations in each specific Olympic sport: it’s a measure of the nation’s performance in comparison to other Olympic nations.

It doesn’t however give any indication of how a nation actually prepared – and that’s the key to everything. By understanding how a nation prepares to perform at the Olympics, coaches, athletes, teams and sports can identify where they need to improve.


The Cop Outs….the “not-enoughs”:

When an athlete or team or sport or even a nation “fails” at the Olympic Games, the single most common post ‘Games comment is to complain about one of the “big three”:

  1. Not enough money – i.e. “we can’t compete against nations who invest significant sums of money and resources into high performance sport”;
  2. Not enough people – i.e. “we can’t compete against larger nations with bigger populations”;
  3. Not enough focus on high performance sport – i.e. “we can’t compete against nations with well-developed, mature, sophisticated, well funded high performance sports programs”.

And, after 20 years of experience in high performance sport, my view is that none of these three comments has any real validity when it comes to analysing and understanding the reasons why athletes, coaches and sports have under-achieved at the Olympic Games.

Blaming the lack of money, people and systems for a poor Olympic performance is easy: but it overlooks the key issue: did the athletes – our athletes perform better or worse in the Olympic environment when compared to their own personal performance standards?

That’s got nothing to do with money or population or systems: these are coaching issues about preparation and planning, and all the money in the world will not make any difference to Olympic performance unless these issues are addressed with honesty and with a commitment to learning and improvement.

So how do you go about conducting a serious Olympic Games performance review – one that will provide real insight into the reasons behind the performances?


Olympic Review Key question 1: Did the athlete equal their own personal best performance?

If the athlete did not record a personal best performance at the Olympic Games – particularly in a sport like swimming or other sports where the competition environment is standardised, e.g. standardised, indoor competition environment, (and they were not injured or carrying an illness),  it usually indicates they did not prepare to deal with the emotional and mental aspects of Olympic competition.

Olympic Review Key question 2: Did the athlete match or improve on their own performance from the Olympic selection Trials?

If the athlete didn’t match or improve their own performance from their nation’s Olympic selection trials (and they were not injured or carry an illness) it usually indicates that the athlete and coach did not fully understand the actual physical, mental, emotional and logistical demands of the Olympic environment. It can also mean that the coach and athlete in all likelihood made significant errors in their work / tapering / peaking balance between the Olympic selection trials and the Olympic Games.

Olympic Review Key question 3: How did the athlete perform relative to their own nation’s national record?

This is an important question to ask because it challenges coaches and athletes to compare their performances with those of their country men and women who have gone before them. Arguably, with the advantages and advancements in technology, equipment, coaching techniques, recovery, travel management, nutrition, sports science and injury management, no national records in any sport should stand for any more than one Olympic cycle, i.e. no more than four years.

Olympic Review Key Question 4: Did the athlete improve from the first round to the next during the competition, e.g. did they go faster / improve their performance from heats to finals, from round competition to the finals etc.?

The nature of most Olympic sports is that the competition gets more challenging, more demanding and a lot tougher throughout the competition. Athletes who fail to improve their performance through “rounds” or from heats to finals etc. were not prepared to perform in the Olympic competition, i.e. they may have been prepared to perform – but not to do it in a multi-round competition and improve their performance each time they compete. Again, this is a coaching, preparation and planning issue.

Olympic Review Key question 5: Did the athlete improve compared to their own performance at their previous major international competition?

Most sports compete in Olympic test events or other major international events in the year leading into the Olympic Games, e.g. world championships, world cups, international races etc. These events offer the opportunity to learn how to win at the highest level, to learn what aspects of planning, preparation and performance need to be improved and to practice and rehearse things like tapering, peaking, training cycles, nutrition strategies, equipment selection and so on. The athlete who did not improve their own performance at the Olympic Games when compared to their previous international competition, obviously learnt very little from the experience.


So who takes the blame?

This is the billion dollar question. Who takes the blame for the the failure of athletes to perform at the Olympic Games?

That’s an easy question to answer.

The same people who would have stepped forward and accepted the praise, accolades and rewards if the athlete had performed well.


Summary – time for honesty.

The unfortunate thing about the post Olympic Games period is the attempts of athletes, coaches, sporting administrators and other sporting leaders to try and explain away their failure to perform in the Games environment. The truth often gets lost in weeks and months of spin, finger pointing, blaming and job-saving rhetoric.

For the sports who approach the ‘Games performance post-mortem with real honesty and integrity and with a commitment to learn and improve, chances are they can be successful at the next Olympic Games in four years time.

For those who live by the “spin” – they will die by the “spin” because after a while, even they start to believe the stories they have made up to rationalise their failures and the arguments they have created to retain their government funding levels.

High performance sport is by nature an honest environment – it has to be. It’s about giving everything you have without compromise. It’s about doing whatever it takes to realise your potential. It’s about ruthlessly exposing any weaknesses or frailties in your opposition. It’s life at its most honest.

Any lack of honesty during the Olympic performance review process will be exposed in four years time under the pressure of the next Olympic Games competition.

What is needed during the Olympic performance review process is a total commitment from everyone involved to honesty, objectivity, integrity and to continuous improvement.


Wayne Goldsmith


  • James Marshall Posted August 27, 2012 5:14 pm

    Do you think that too many inputs into an athlete spreads the accountability? I am no expert in swimming, but the GB team all swam slower (one exception)than at the trials.The review is being conducted by the PD (will he sack himself?)

    Ps- I like the new look website Wayne.

  • Wayne Goldsmith Posted August 27, 2012 8:40 pm

    Thanks James.

    Ooooo – you got me on dangerous ground there.

    I know the PD of British Swimming and would prefer not to comment specifically on their situation however…….my view of any organisation doing an internal view is this:

    Doing an internal review is like singing in front of your relatives on your birthday: every smiles, no-body gets hurt or upset and you walk away believing you are a lot better than you really are.

    Read into that anything you like.



  • Michele Greb Posted August 27, 2012 10:32 pm

    Good points, Wayne. Several countries have decided to evaluate their Olympic performance after London. It will be interesting to read what they “discover”. Already the excuses and/or justifications for results are flying.

    However, if your #2 in the world ranked swimmer in Event X completely blows their former national record and former lifetime best time out of the water, which was set at their Trials, but still comes in 4th at the Olympics, how can anyone view that as “failure”?

    Is not coming home with something shiny a disappointment? Yeah, sure it is. Was your world record broken by anyone who did get a medal? Nope. Guess what? You are still the fastest in the world then, even if on that given day you were not.

    Being first is absolute. Winning, however, is relative. I really hope that those doing these analysis papers remember this, for the sake of the swimmers and the coaches.

  • Wayne Goldsmith Posted August 28, 2012 6:33 am

    Thanks Michele.

    Unfortunately in my experience very few reviews are done using what I call POISE:


    These five words are critical if you want to learn from the process and enhance your performance.


  • Diana Reddy Posted September 2, 2012 10:22 am

    Hey Wayne,

    What a terrific article! Please allow me to post this for my friends who are also tennis parents to read. So many kids are suffering because their parents do not know what they are doing. If parents truly understood the harmful effects of their behavior they would stop. This is an article that gives good food for thought.

    Thank you in advance.


    Christina’s mom – Diana

    • Wayne Goldsmith Posted September 6, 2012 12:09 pm

      Hi Diana,

      My experience is the 99% of tennis parents are wonderful, loving, caring people who love and cherish their kids and only want what’s best for them.

      However, a parent’s definition of “what’s best of my child” leaves a lot open to discussion sometimes.

      In the end like all parents, your job is to provide the opportunity and the environment for your child to realise their potential and to discover and explore their dreams.

      If it happens to be as a professional tennis player – that’s great. If it’s in another sport or in education or in business or if it’s just being a great human being, that’s just as fantastic.



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