Why Team GB overhauling Australia in the medal table is the race that counts in Tokyo

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·3-min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Why Team GB overhauling Australia in the medal table is the race that counts in Tokyo - Getty Images
Why Team GB overhauling Australia in the medal table is the race that counts in Tokyo - Getty Images

We are now at the business end of the Olympics, the point when the really important issues are decided. Like who will come out on top in the scrap that really matters: Great Britain against Australia in the medal table.

At the time of writing - and things change constantly in the Olympic fray; at any moment the sounds of Advance Australia Fair might ring out across Tokyo as a sprint canoeist goes for gold - Australia are just ahead 15-14. The gap, though, is forever changing. It is tighter than the Sydney’s lockdown restrictions, more fraught than a kangaroo boxing bout, as tense as a Steve Smith press conference. This is proper competition, proper drama, proper fluctuations.

In truth it has not been this close for a while. Over the last six Olympic cycles, the two old rivals have been miles apart. In Rio five years ago, Britain finished with 27 gold medals, Australia just the eight. In 2012, in London, it was an even bigger win for GB, this time 29-8. In 2008 in Beijing, GB won 19-14. Before that, however, Australia had grown used to coming out on top. In Athens 2004 they won 17-9. In 2000 on home soil it was 16-11. And let’s not mention 1996, when Australia had a convincing victory over the old enemy 9-1. The only surprise that year was that Britain managed to accumulate one.

Whoever ends up on top, one thing is certain: losing to the other lot has consequences. Root and branch inquiries are demanded. Investigations are undertaken to work out what the other side is doing better. Money will be promised, systems investigated, coaches tempted to swap sides in a bid to borrow a bit of their cachet. It has happened to both sides when they have been soundly beaten: what can we learn from the other lot?

Because for both nations, how we do against them is more important than merely a bit of breast beating. Sure, where they end up in the table is a useful material in the eternal bickering banter wars between the two; traditionally the sports ministers of both sides have enjoyed winding up their defeated rival, often noisily placing bets backing their team ahead of the action.

But the two of us provide each other with a much more fundamental thing than simply bragging engagement: we are the other one's most significant indicator of success. And that is because we tend to compete at the same sports.

There is no point making comparison with Belarus or Iran, whose Olympics is almost exclusively based on disciplines like Greco-Roman wrestling or water polo, which have no purchase in this country. No point sinking into introspection because the Japanese are ahead in the table, given their successes in artistic swimming, fencing and table tennis. Even the Germans, our traditional litmus test in football, are engaged in things like handball and volleyball in which we have no involvement.

But the Aussies don’t play softball or baseball either. They do everything we do. And in sailing, rowing, swimming and cycling they are always there, always challenging. Take the women’s canoe slalom here which turned into an Ashes battle with a paddle, in which the Aussie Jessica Fox beat the Briton Mallory Franklin to take gold. Just. That is writ large across Tokyo: everywhere we think we have a chance they do too.

Which means if you want to know how we have done, there is no sharper comparison. And this time, as the race looks as though it could be heading to the wire, for both nations, given that neither of us are ever likely to end up at the top of the medal table, beating the other lot has become the most significant measure of Olympic success.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting