Medal af­ter medal af­ter medal...

Paul Hay­ward on Bri­tain’s tri­umphant Olympics

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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)

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