Capitalizing on Japan’s Success at the London Olympics


The London Olympics came to an end on August 12. Japan’s athletes won a record 38 medals in 13 different events. Sports journalist Ninomiya Seijun analyses the results and the implications for Tokyo’s bid for the 2020 Olympics.

A Record Performance

The Olympic Charter clearly describes the Olympics as a competition between athletes in individual or team events—and not between countries. Nevertheless, Japan is not the only nation that swings from joy to sorrow and back again as the medal count unfolds over the course of the games.

The host country(*1) for the 2012 Olympic Games, Britain, won 29 gold medals, putting it in third place behind the United States and China. The United States, China, and Russia typically occupy the top three spots, so this achievement broke the usual pattern of dominance. This was Britain’s best performance since the London Olympics of 1908.

Before the games started, the Japanese Olympic Committee set a target of fifth place or higher in the gold medal rankings. Japan was unable to reach this objective but did achieve 7 gold, 14 silver, and 17 bronze medals, giving a total of 38. This was a new record—beating by one the previous best performance, when the country’s athletes brought home 37 medals from the Athens Olympics in 2004.

A great achievement, to be sure, but it still meant that Japan finished behind two regional rivals: not just China (38 gold, 27 silver, 23 bronze) but also South Korea (13 gold, 8 silver, 7 bronze). Some politicians have grumbled that although there is perhaps no disgrace in finishing behind China, with a population of 1.3 billion, losing to South Korea (with just 50 million people) is unacceptable.

Gold medals take priority in the medal table. In an extreme case, a country with one single silver medal would finish higher in the table than one with 100 bronze medals. Likewise, a nation with one gold medal would “beat” one with 100 silver medals but no gold. By this methodology, South Korea achieved fifth place and Japan was eleventh. The value of a gold medal is great indeed.

But it would be a mistake to conclude that Japan “lost” to South Korea simply on the basis of this calculation. Japan’s athletes brought home medals in 13 different events. This demonstrates an impressive depth of talent in Japanese sports.

London Olympics 2012 Medal Table

1 United States 46 29 29 104
2 China 38 27 23 88
3 Britain 29 17 19 65
4 Russia 24 26 32 82
5 South Korea 13 8 7 28
6 Germany 11 19 14 44
7 France 11 11 12 34
8 Italy 8 9 11 28
9 Hungary 8 4 5 17
10 Australia 7 16 12 35
11 Japan 7 14 17 38
12 Kazakhstan 7 1 5 13
13 Netherlands 6 6 8 20
14 Ukraine 6 5 9 20
15 New Zealand 6 2 5 13
16 Cuba 5 3 6 14
17 Iran 4 5 3 12
18 Jamaica 4 4 4 12
19 Czech Republic 4 3 3 10
20 North Korea 4 0 2 6


Doing Things the Japanese Way

In recent years it has been suggested that Japan should follow the approach taken in China and South Korea, and focus its efforts on particular “target” sports. But these calls only serve to encourage national-level competition, and go against the spirit of the Olympic charter.

I think we should accept that Japan has its own way of doing things.

A good example is men’s figure skating. At the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Takahashi Daisuke took bronze. Japanese skaters had been appearing in this event since the Lake Placid Winter Olympics in 1932. Including the games in Vancouver, Japan has sent 29 figure skaters to the Winter Olympics over the years, but until 2010 none of them had ever brought home a medal. Under the Chinese and South Korean approach, it might well have been argued that Japan should concentrate its resources on other sports. Takahashi’s success might never have happened.

Japan sowed the seeds of success and waited 78 years to reap the harvest. I think Japanese sport should be proud of this achievement.

Making the Most of Japan’s Success

But let us return to Japan’s recent haul of 38 medals. As the medals came thick and fast over a few days—a phenomenon the Japanese media took to describing as a “medal rush”—the whole country seemed to be energized. Some members of the JOC voiced hopes that this performance would boost Tokyo’s bid to host the games in 2020.

Tokyo, Istanbul, and Madrid are the three remaining candidates to host the 2020 Summer Olympics. A final decision will be made when the International Olympic Committee meets in Buenos Aires in September 2013.

Istanbul has put itself forward as a candidate for every Olympics since the summer games of 2000. This will be its fifth such attempt, and Istanbul is widely seen as the favourite. If it succeeds, it will be the first host city in a Muslim country. There is, however, cause for concern in Istanbul’s case; namely, its ability to maintain public order. Turkey shares its southern border with Syria, currently embroiled in a brutal civil war. Unless the situation improves between now and next year, security will be a major concern for IOC members when they cast their votes.

With Madrid, the biggest question mark hangs over the health of the local economy. Everyone remembers the Athens games of 2004, where overspending had a ruinous impact on government finances.

What about Tokyo? An independent opinion poll conducted by the IOC in each of the candidate cities found public support levels of 73% in Istanbul, 78% in Madrid, and just 47% in Tokyo.(*2) It appears that the Japanese people themselves have no good answer for why the Olympics should come to Tokyo for a second time.

Neither Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko nor Tokyo Governor Ishihara Shintarō attended the opening ceremony in London. If politicians really think that the Olympics should come to Tokyo, they need to lead by example. The JOC needs to capitalize on the success of Japan’s athletes in London, and needs to do it now.

(Originally written in Japanese on August 20, 2012. Banner image: Japan’s medalists from the London Olympics at a press conference on August 14, 2012, in Tokyo. Photo courtesy Sankei Shimbun.)

(*1) ^ Technically, it is a city and not a country that hosts the Olympics. But realistically speaking the event could not take place without the nation’s support.

(*2) ^ International Olympic Committee, Games of the XXXII Olympiad 2020 Working Group Report, April 5, 2012.

Tokyo sports Olympics figure skating