According to people who seem to know what they are talking about, the two certainties in life are death and taxes. To this I’d like to add a third certainty: Olympic predictions. The pre-Olympic season is rife with endless chatter about who the favourites are, who is expected to perform and who is going to win, win, win!
Having lived through several Olympic cycles, both as an athlete and spectator, I am continually fascinated and flabbergasted by the media’s strange obsession with trying to predict everything they can about the games. I can appreciate the need for hype however. The cynic in me knows all too well that Olympic speculation breeds excitement and anticipation and happily fuels the network advertising machine. I imagine corporate executives with dollar signs for eyes, laughing and rubbing their hands together with glee every time we click…
But I digress. The reason I find the predictions so fascinating is how often they are wrong. Of course they are often right too, because the world’s best have earned the capacity to repeatedly perform under pressure. But when things don’t go as planned and the predictions fail to materialize, many are left scratching their heads wondering what happened. In short, predictions are ridiculous because if we knew who was going to win the games would be redundant and they could just send the medals out in the mail.
There are so many factors that contribute to an athlete’s ability – or lack thereof – to repeat a past performance. Medals at world championships earn an athlete the potential for Olympic glory but so often the results sheet at the games is far from predictable. The problem is that the data used to make the predictions is either out of date or no longer valid. For example, the depth of the field at the world championships in the years leading up to the games is rarely as strong as in Olympic years.
Past performances don’t always translate into repeat performances. Perhaps an athlete can repeat their previous world best, but is simply surpassed by a better performance not previously seen by another athlete. The Olympic pressure cooker affects some athletes and not others. Some athletes believe the hype about them and lose focus. The sheer chance of when an Olympic year falls on the path of an athlete’s development can have a huge impact on Olympic potential, with some athletes peaking in the right year while others are too soon or too late.
But the biggest reason the predictions don’t always come true, in my humble opinion, is the very thing that gets us watching and has us gripping the edge of our seats in the first place – I call it the X-Factor. The X-Factor is simply the strange, unknown, mysterious phenomenon that manifests itself as surprise, drama and the unexpected and unpredictable at the Olympic Games.
The relatively stable pecking order seen in many sports, as established through World Cup circuits and World Championships, flies out the window the moment the games begin. I’ve experienced it first hand and witnessed it countless times as a spectator, where the favourites falter and unknowns emerge seemingly from nowhere.
Already at the London Games there have been surprises, upsets and off-kilter results – Phelps, women’s gymnastics, diving, and in particular the men’s 66kg judo competition where the day was riddled with upsets, overturned decisions and an unlikely Olympic Champion. The only guarantee, and this is my prediction, is that there is plenty more X-Factor coming down the pipe. This is the main reason why the Olympics are so exciting.
If I were to remain on my cynical bent about why the media generates this predictions frenzy, I would say that the reason they do it, beyond generating hype and anticipation to appease their advertisers, is so that when the predictions do fly off the rails and the surprises and dramas ensue they can generate even more hype and more excitement and more revenue.
But I don’t want to be cynical. I prefer instead to embrace the X-Factor and the impossibility of predicting what will happen. With the Olympics only every four years, the stakes are high and the rewards even higher. The X-Factor exists because we are human: infallible, unstoppable, determined, yes – but also fragile, capricious and merely mortal. It makes for an intoxicating and unpredictable combination.
Leave the hype to the media and simply allow yourself to marvel, without bias or pretense, at the wondrous athletic feats of the world’s very best.