- 5 Aug 08, 08:20 AM
There is no predicting what will happen at an Olympic Games. But that's no reason not to try.
I've spent a lot of time writing reports about British athletes doing incredibly well in a wide variety of events this year, so when UK Sport announced they'd be happy with 35 medals in Beijing (41 at a push), that seemed almost unambitious to me. Clearly sports minister Gerry Sutcliffe agrees - he wants GB to meet, or exceed that target.
I turned to Luciano Barra, an expert at this kind of thing. As a former head of the Italian Olympic Committee, Barra has spent much of his life immersed in four-year Olympiads.
Having taken a step back in the wake of the 2006 Winter Olympics, Barra devotes his time to maintaining a spreadsheet which pools every single world championship result, in order to estimate the Olympic medal tally. He seemed like a good person to call.
When I phoned him up, he was only too happy to explain how he was sat by the side of his swimming pool in glorious Tuscany sunshine - but he did happen to have his chart in front of him.
Let me tell you, Mr Barra knows that chart, and all the nations and sports within it, inside out.
Barra insists these are projections, not predictions - in other words, he's taking data from past world championships and working out what would happen if those results are repeated. He's not saying this is what will happen.
But if Britain's world champions hold on to their lofty positions in Beijing, GB should come home with a rather more enjoyable figure of 48 medals - 18 of them gold, enough to elevate the British to fourth place in Barra's projected medal table. (It's gold medals, not total medals, that decide the rankings, conveniently for Britain.)
You probably need a bit of time on your hands, by the side of a Tuscany swimming pool, to keep on top of that spreadsheet. When I had a couple of hours to find the results of every world championship leading up to Beijing (before I'd had the chance to inspect Barra's version), that proved tricky enough. Trying to "quickly" do the same for world championships held before Athens, by way of comparison, was definitely a challenge.
If you think everything you could ever want to know is now easily accessible on the internet, think again. (Though admittedly, you may never have wanted to know the results from the 2003 World Taekwondo Championships.)
Then there's the small matter of what actually counts as a world championship.
I spent ages staring at Luciano Barra's tables, wondering why on earth my calculations were a few medals out from his, before I realised we were counting different sailing world titles.
The International Sailing Federation held its ISAF Worlds competition last year, with entries in all the relevant Olympic classes (Finn, 49er, 470 etc). I counted those in my table.
But - sailing being a weak link in my Olympic knowledge - I had forgotten that each class then held its own world championship, most in early 2008. (Here's an example.) Barra was counting those, and on balance that made more sense, so I swapped.
Sometimes it does pay to double check, though. Having got down the list to slalom canoeing, I realised Barra's calculations included one result from 2006, not 2007, by accident. Sad to say, in noticing this I may have deprived GB of an extra projected silver medal (Fiona Pennie won silver in 2006, but did not reach the podium a year later). So if the British are now pipped by Australia or Germany in Beijing, you can blame me.
I found it very interesting that Barra, with all his experience in an Olympic Committee, seemed so sure UK Sport were deliberately playing down British chances. Do you think 48 medals, or indeed any tally in the 40s, is more likely than their minimum of 35?
And is Barra right to suggest that British track cycling is the weak link in his projection, needing - as they do - a repeat of seven world title-winning performances just to break even?
Update, 0900 BST
Just in case you're interested, here is where Luciano Barra thinks GB will win medals in Beijing, based on world championship results...
Bronze: Individual men
Silver: Team men
Bronze: Team women
Bronze: Men's 4x100m relay
Gold: Women's 400m
Silver: Women's 400m
Bronze: Women's 4x400m relay
Bronze: Light welterweight
Bronze: Slalom men's K1
Silver: Slalom women's K1 (2006 result)
Silver: Flatwater men's K1 500m
Gold: Flatwater men's K1 1000m
Gold: BMX women
Gold: Men's individual pursuit
Gold: Men's team pursuit
Gold: Men's sprint
Silver: Men's team sprint
Gold: Men's madison
Gold: Men's keirin
Gold: Women's individual pursuit
Gold: Women's sprint
Gold: Individual three-day event
Silver: Team three-day event
Bronze: Men's pommel horse
Bronze: Women's trampoline
Bronze: Men's 81kg
Silver: Men's 100kg
Bronze: Men's lightweight double scull
Bronze: Men's coxless pairs
Gold: Men's lightweight coxless four
Bronze: Men's eight
Bronze: Women's double scull
Gold: Women's quadruple scull
Bronze: Women's eight
Gold: Men's 470
Gold: Men's Finn
Bronze: Women's Laser Radial
Gold: Women's Yngling
Bronze: Men's 1500m freestyle
Bronze: Men's 100m backstroke
Silver: Women's 200m breaststroke
Silver: Women's 10km open water
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