Medal after medal after medal...
Paul Hayward on Britain’s triumphant Olympics
Britain is having its own private Olympics in Brazil. The mass of British fans and the rush of GB medals feel like a self-contained show. Many of the best parts of London 2012 have transported themselves to Rio 2016, with Mo Farah’s victory in the men’s 10,000 metres the emotional high point so far of a bonanza the British Olympic Association are calling “success by design”. Tracking British triumphs is a full-time job. Sunday in Rio matched the joys of Saturday when Max Whitlock earned the country’s first gymnastics golds and Justin Rose became Olympic champion in golf, followed by further cycling glory for Jason Kenny. With the Rio medal count exceeding London 2012 at the same stage, Britain’s Olympians are understandably cock-a-hoop as the household names are joined on the podium by fresh faces and previously unsung sports. They promise an equally eventful second week. “There’s plenty in the tank,” says Simon Timson, UK Sport’s director of performance. “The sports that are coming in now have medalled at every Games. Taekwondo, triathlon, canoe sprint, more equestrian.” The BOA’s promise to create “a new generation of heroes” from the bounty of National Lottery money was proving to be more than bureaucratic rhetoric as Britain ended the weekend with another cycling gold and medals for Andy Murray and others. The disparity between the elite level (funded by the so-called ‘ tax on the poor’) and the withering of grass-roots, municipal sport in Britain is the backdrop to the amazing achievement of reaching 30 medals by the middle Saturday in Rio compared to 29 on home soil in London.
For now, though, Britain is just happily reeling in the medals from across the Olympic disciplines. Timson said yesterday morning: “We’ve won medals in 11 sports already, and we know we’re going to add tennis to that, sailing to that. It’s not just strength in depth – it’s strength in breadth.
“That makes us incredibly confident about the next few days, but we can’t underestimate our international competition and what a fantastic achievement it would be to deliver our best-ever away Games in this environment.
“I think we should be absolutely delighted when we cross that threshold of 48 [the pre-Games minimum target] because it will be no mean feat.”
Britain’s Olympians tell tales of the big names functioning as team leaders outside their disciplines; of new arrivals being shown a 45-minute presentation on the spirit of 2012. Mark England, the Team GB chef de mission, says athletes from other countries tell their British counterparts: “We haven’t got anything like this. Our national Olympic committee has not provided anything like this.”
England says: “We have a seven-time Olympian, a six-timer, and a whole bunch of five-time Olympians. To draw on that Beijing [2008, away Games] experience in particular, to carry this new generation through, is very important. It’s the best dynamic I have ever seen in the team.”
Around half of the 47 rowers who returned to the village at the weekend when their competition ended were wearing medals. England says: “The mood and the momentum in the camp and back in the village is fantastic; and contrary to popular belief, all the big hitters in the team have stayed in the village.
“Justin Rose was in there for four or five nights prior to his competition [golf ]. Andy Murray continues to live in the village. He lived out for 12 hours. And then he decided he wanted to be part of the team and to be flag bearer and come into the team and support the team. He spoke eloquently to all the athletes on the eve of the opening ceremony about the opportunity to create once more what the athletes
‘There’s plenty in the tank ... the mood in camp is fantastic’
created in London.” Alongside the established stars there are new medallists in previously marginal activities: synchronised diving ( gold for Jack Laugher and Chris Mears) and trampoline (Bryony Page, silver). Among the breakthrough names are Adam Peaty, Siobhan-Marie O’Connor and Jazz Carlin (swimming), Owain Doull and Callum Skinner in cycling and Joe Clarke in kayak. Swimming, which underperformed in 2012, is booming.
“We stood shoulder to shoulder with them. We took the difficult decisions together,” Timson says. “The first thing we said about swimming is – we’ve got to get them into that holding camp in Rio, and now we’ve had the best Games in the pool for 108 years.
“This is not happening by chance. This is success by design. It’s the result of 18 years of consistent, coherent and targeted National Lottery investment.”
Beyond the medal-winning surge here, wider questions remain about the failure of the mass participation message after London, and whether a second successive medal harvest can shift Government thinking and draw more people into playing sport.
Not just the middle classes, but all along the income spectrum.
“I’m very passionate about the point you’re making,” England says. “I was head of sport for three inner-city London boroughs. I was also head of sport for Glasgow. So that was a tough gig. And the opportunities through investment in the home countries in those inner-city areas is absolutely vital to the pathways for young, talented people.
“I think in many respects a lot of sports missed the boat after London. I think the whole country got consumed [in 2012]. It isn’t about standing up and cheering and shouting at the television or on the trackside or the poolside. It’s about – whether it’s the local authorities or Sport England or the Government sectors – investing.” Those running British Olympic sport know how lucky they are to receive such lavish funding and that other countries will be scrambling to steal their template. “Absolutely. And let’s not forget that our biggest sponsor is the National Lottery,” Timson says. “The people who contribute to that most are the Great British public buying their lottery tickets every week. So, to a degree, it’s in all of our hands, isn’t it? We enjoy an incredibly privileged position, I think.”
But nobody could accuse them of not planning, or of squandering the windfall. “I think it’s really important that we invest in future potential. We’ll be investing in Tokyo medal potential, not Rio performances,” Timson says.
“It would be foolhardy to simply reward Rio performances or punish Rio under-performances. We’d be doing the same as the rest of the world – investing in two or four-year projects. That’s not what we’re about.
“We’re about sustained success. Eight-year pathways. We’ll be reviewing every performance post-Games – in the light of what it says about that sport being able to deliver in Tokyo. We’ve got medal targets for Tokyo already.”
Another boast is the upsurge in women’s medals. Timson says: “Go back 20 years to Atlanta: one gold medal. And we’re sat here talking about women who are going to win their third or fourth here.”
Then everyone reminisced about Farah’s medal ceremony after the 10,000 metres: Union flags everywhere, Farah back on the podium, that London feeling again.
Flying the flag: Mo Farah after his triumph in the 10,000 metres; Jason Kenny celebrates his victory in the men’s sprint last night (below)