Updated July 19, 2012, 11:55 a.m. ET
Get Ready for a U.S. Romp
London was supposed to be China's moment to seize the Olympic medal count. But our projections suggest the U.S. will win—and win big.
By MATTHEW FUTTERMAN, LORETTA CHAO AND GEOFFREY A. FOWLER
Time to unfurl Old Glory and break out the red, white and blue boxer shorts.
Four years after China became the first country since 1992 to win more Olympic gold medals than the U.S., The Wall Street Journal's medal projections for London suggest the Star-Spangled Banner will once again play more often than any other anthem.
And for the fifth consecutive Summer Games, the U.S. should finish atop the overall medal table.
China's victory in the gold-medal race in 2008 was supposed to herald the arrival of the newest Olympic superpower, a vast country with 1.3 billion people and a proven government-sponsored training program. Even at the U.S. Olympic Committee headquarters in Colorado Springs, there was a growing sense that China would win the most gold and overall medals in 2012.
Instead, London should vindicate America's decentralized and entrepreneurial approach to developing the world's best athletes. The Wall Street Journal's projections show Team U.S.A.'s 530 athletes should leave London with 40 gold medals and 108 overall, topping the Chinese, who are projected to collect 38 gold medals and 92 overall.
The Journal's forecasting system takes into account basic information such as interviews with experts and the performances of athletes in recent national and international competitions. But rather than simply anointing first-, second- and third-place finishers in each event and calling it a day, the model assigns probabilities to the top medal contenders, then uses those probabilities to project the most likely outcomes.
For instance, the U.S. women's basketball team, which hasn't lost a game at the Olympics since 1992, is an 80% favorite to win the gold by our count—while the next most likely winners come in at 10%. Serbian tennis star Novak Djokovic, who has to prevail over stiff competition from Roger Federer and hometown favorite Andy Murray, has just a 40% chance for gold. After tallying those probabilities, we enlisted sports actuary John Dewan, owner of Baseball Info Solutions, to run 1,000 simulations of the Games.
The results were emphatic: The U.S. won or tied for the most medals 998 times. And while the gold-medal race was less certain, the U.S. won it 746 times to 304 for China. There were 57 ties and seven scenarios in which Russia was a surprise winner.
Some events were so close they were tough to handicap. This year, there's a cracker of a match before the Opening Ceremony even takes place, as the U.S. women's soccer team takes on a talented French side in a rematch of their 2011 World Cup semifinal. We expect the U.S. to survive on the strength of deadly scoring duo Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan, and to earn a medal, but the match shouldn't be missed.
Same goes for the showdown in the men's 110-meter hurdles, where China's Liu Xiang, Cuba's Dayron Robles, and Jayson Richardson of the U.S. are all capable of winning gold and setting a world record. Wall Street Journal projections have Xiang and Robles in a dead heat. And only a fool would miss the men's 200-meter freestyle, where American Ryan Lochte should beat France's Yannick Agnel by a fingernail, but not more.
As for individual sports disciplines, the predictions show the U.S. dominating where it usually does—in medal-rich swimming and track and field. Those two sports should account for 57 U.S. medals, or 53% of the U.S. haul. Swimmer Michael Phelps isn't chasing eight gold medals again, but he could easily win five gold and seven overall.
Chinese success in winning medals relies less on raw athletic talent than it does on intense training. The Chinese do best in the sorts of events where a tireless commitment to practice pays dividends. China, for example, should rack up medals in weightlifting (eight), diving (nine) and table tennis (six). In 2008, China won 16 medals in badminton and shooting and just two in swimming and track. Its swimming is improved, thanks to distance specialist Sun Yang, who is expected to win both the 1,500-meter and 400-meter freestyle races.
Britain's Olympic improvement should continue, too, with the country's hopes riding on a few key athletes, including distance runner Mo Farah, who may try to pull off the rare feat of winning both the 5,000- and 10,000-meter races. Meanwhile, Germany should continue to confound the experts, winning just 49 overall medals, far below what a country so populous, wealthy and successful at the Winter Olympics should.
On the other end of the spectrum: Jamaica. Led by Usain Bolt, the planet's fastest man, and the world's top sprint team, Jamaica should claim a dozen medals, four of them gold. Not bad for a country of just 2.9 million people.
Sore Ankles and Split Seconds
A return to U.S. Olympic supremacy would come at a time when the economy is lagging and when Americans are feeling somewhat less than superpower-like. It also arrives in the middle of a presidential race in which both candidates could use the outcome for their benefit: President Obama by noting that the triumph occurred on his watch and Mitt Romney by touting his credentials as the chief of the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City.
Team U.S.A.'s projected success is subject to the whims of world-class athletic competition, of course—an environment where a sore ankle or a few hundredths of a second can make the difference between victory and defeat. Two American swimmers, Phelps and Missy Franklin, could help the U.S. win a dozen gold medals, or they could get the flu and leave empty-handed.
If probability becomes reality, however, a U.S. romp could presage more dominance in the future. The USOC receives no support from the federal government. But nothing gets Americans to reach into their pocketbooks on behalf of the Olympics more than seeing Americans win.
"The better we do, the more money we can raise," says Scott Blackmun, chief executive of the USOC.
Olympic improvement tends to come with hosting the Games, as when China soared in 2008. Besides the psychological advantage of competing at home, host countries invest in facilities, coaching and athlete development. China poured money and effort into "Project 119," a program to target the 119 potential gold medals in sports where China was traditionally weak, such as swimming, boxing and athletics. The Chinese won 51 gold medals and 100 overall in 2008, up from 28 and 63 in 2004.
The British have spent nearly $500 million to fund training and athletic-development programs since 2009. The Journal projects that Team GB, as it is known, will win 22 gold medals and 66 overall this year, a vast improvement from eight years ago, when Britain won nine gold medals and 31 overall.
The U.S. hasn't hosted a Summer Olympics since 1996 and won't host another one until at least 2024. It spends relatively little on athletes. The USOC shells out on average $106.2 million a year to train and treat its winter and summer athletes and maintain its training centers in Colorado Springs, Lake Placid, N.Y., and Chula Vista, Calif.
However, while the USOC has the ultimate power of naming the country's Olympic team, it has relatively few resources and athletes under its direct control. The national governing body for each sport, such as USA Track & Field and USA Swimming, is largely responsible for developing future Olympians. In most cases, those groups rely largely on the U.S. collegiate, scholastic and recreational sports systems.
During the 2010-11 school year, the latest for which figures are available, U.S. college athletic departments spent $12.1 billion, according to U.S. Department of Education filings. High-school athletic departments spend several billion dollars more. U.S. parents dig deep also, spending hundreds of millions on training in hopes their kids become the next Abby Wambach or Nastia Luikin.
Compare that with China, where state-run sports schools comb through communities searching for the extremely tall to play basketball and the double-jointed to learn diving. The state oversees their training into adulthood.
That system, says Bill Martin, the former president of the USOC, wouldn't work in the U.S. "It's not part of the DNA of our country to have one controlling authority on sports," he says. "The beauty of our system is that Olympians can come out of anywhere, and they do."
China's projected medal decline points to a common post-host hangover and a more fundamental weakness in its approach to athlete development: the decline of the sports school. Over the past decade, the number of sports schools in China has decreased by 40%, according to state-run newspaper Global Times, as the country's booming economy has created more career options for rural youth whose families once viewed sports schools as a meal ticket or the only means of social mobility. Now families are more likely to turn down an invitation to a sports school because other options exist.
Chinese sports officials declined to comment for this story, but Susan Brownell, a professor of anthropology at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, who has written extensively about Chinese sports, says the country "is just really slowly moving toward a sports system that is more in line with what other countries have—very slowly."
Hunting for Talent
The potency of the U.S. system is its ability to spread money and opportunity to the broadest spectrum of athletes. "You've got this competitive system of clubs and coaches and schools all looking for talent," says Chris Welton, chief executive of Helios Partners, a sports-consulting firm that works with Olympic organizations around the world. "If you've got athletic talent in this country, it's so much harder to be missed."
The system largely leaves training up to the athletes, forcing them (and their parents) to be hungry and entrepreneurial in their search for the best coaching and money to fund their training.
Jesse Williams, the NCAA high-jump champion in 2006, failed to make the final at the 2008 Olympics. When his career continued to sputter, Williams switched coaches to train with Cliff Rovelto at Kansas State University. Rovelto overhauled his training and jumping style. Williams did away with his 300-meter repetitions and now never runs farther than 60 meters leading up to a major competition. His regimen is focused on reaching maximum speed in his final steps before his jump as he sprints toward the bar, clawing the track with his whole foot instead of bounding into his jump while running on his toes.
The changes helped Williams win the gold at the IAAF World Championships in South Korea last summer, and now he is headed for London. "I feel like I can jump over Times Square," he said in a recent interview.
Then there is Gabrielle Douglas, the 16-year-old who won the U.S. Olympic Trials competition in gymnastics. Her family cobbled together enough money and support to send her from her home in Virginia at 14 to West Des Moines, Iowa, where she lived with a host family and trained with Liang Chow, coach of 2008 gold medalist Shawn Johnson.
Douglas is part of a U.S. Olympic gymnastics team that includes 2011 world all-around champion Jordyn Wieber (Michigan) and gold-medal hopeful Alexandra Raisman (Massachusetts).
The team is favored to win the women's team gold medal in London, something few would have predicted eight years ago when the Chinese were ascendant.
Steve Penny, president of USA Gymnastics, says the relatively decentralized American approach has created "a system that has a pipeline that continues to bring new kids into the elite level."