British Olympic motto now faster, higher, wonga
More medals than London, second in the table, two weeks of sporting glory. This is a success story like no other, writes Paul Hayward
The world is asking how a country that tore itself apart over Brexit in June could be so gloriously united in August. At £4.1 million per medal, Britain, or Team GB to give it its brand name, has found the fast lane from the ignominy of Atlanta (one gold medal) 20 years ago to Olympic superpowerdom.
Eight years ago in Beijing, China declared the end of American global power and tried to claim ownership of the 21st Century through sport. This weekend in Rio, Britain stood above China in the Olympic medal table, behind only the United States. From 36th place to second in 20 years reflects a transfer of wealth from Lottery players to elite athletes, a win for small-scale gambling. Newsagents should be proud. But it also expresses brilliant planning and execution in a way that will feel quite alien to most Britons, who expect big public projects to descend into delays and farce.
“We’re making sporting history – 67 medals, nearly 130 medallists, across 19 sports,” said Liz Nicholl, the chief executive of UK Sport, here in Rio. “Even the sporting superpowers haven’t done that in the past, but we are one of those now.”
When the women’s 4 x 400 metres relay team won bronze on Saturday night, Britain clinched its 66th medal to surpass the 65 won on home soil in London four years ago. Joe Joyce, the super heavyweight boxer, made it 67 yesterday.
Thus, Britain became the first nation to improve its medal tally overseas after hosting the Games. After Sydney in 2000, Australia experienced a 14 per cent dropoff; after Athens (2004), Greece crashed 75 per cent. And even China fell 12 per cent in London compared to its propaganda exercise in Beijing.
Sport is relentless these days. It hurtles through the memory. But we will never forget the time nine million people watched Olympic hockey on a Friday night while Manchester United were in action in the Premier League.
Nor the Mo Farah double-double of Olympic 5,000m and 10,000m titles, Alistair and Jonny Brownlee on the ground together after finishing first and second in the triathlon, or Laura Trott and Jason Kenny, a couple with so much gold they might need to strengthen their floors at home.
The deluge of public funding at the elite end, which contrasts so sharply with cutbacks in municipal sport and PE in state schools, has purchased 700 Olympic and Paralympic medals since the John Major administration decided it could not bear the humiliation of 1996. A generation of household names – Sir Bradley Wiggins, Nicola Adams – have extended the Festival of Britain feel of 2012 to a new dimension. With this second bonanza, far from home, through all hours of the British day and night, they have achieved a permanence that should finally translate, the optimists say, into mass participation and grass-roots sport.
They said that before London, of course, and they were wrong, or disingenuous in their desperation to justify the cost. Participation in many sports actually fell. In America, research shows a dropping off of interest in Olympic sports among social media and video game obsessed Millennials. There is no guarantee that Britain’s medal harvest will now manifest itself as a healthier, more sports-active society, unless the facilities and encouragement exist post-Rio.
News of British medals, though, was incessant, and came from a greater range of sports than ever, and across all shapes and sizes, though, according to one estimate, 25 per cent went to privately educated athletes. Some sports, such as cycling and rowing, are noticeably non-diverse. There is, though, a noticeable balancing out between the sexes, with 40 men winning medals compared to 24 women, with three mixed.
“There’s a huge host of outstanding achievements. I’ve almost lost track of them,” Nicholl said. “There’s been first-evers, best-evers, most decorated.”
Lurking in all these claims and calculations is the question: why? What purpose does it serve, beyond euphoria that lasts 16 days, a social media love-in and joyous pictures of the women’s hockey team running to celebrate their victory while the Premier League was annexing
Friday nights with Manchester United v Southampton. Nicholl, whose stock is high, believes she has the answer. “Success in sport can inspire the nation, make everybody proud and unite the nation,” she says. “There’s no doubt about that. We can all see it and feel it.
“Why do we invest in medal success? We invest in medal success to create a proud, ambitious, active, healthy nation. That’s why Government values medal success, that’s why the National Lottery is targeted towards medal success, that is why the Government adds value to that in terms of Exchequer funding.”
The same Westminster politicians who will claim credit for their foresight while failing to explain why so many council sports facilities are so shabby (and sport in state schools so beleaguered) are also now grappling over where Rio 2016 sits in the Brexit debate. A senior cabinet minister’s claim that the Government would copy the Olympic tactic of backing “excellence” post-Brexit was truly risible. Minister: this is an elite sports programme, involving a few hundred athletes, not the NHS.
“Strength in depth, strength in breadth” was one of the phrases that turned out to be more than management speak. Gymnastics was a good example: “Young Amy Tinkler winning a bronze medal, Max Whitlock performing out of his skin, absolutely tremendous,” Nicholl said. “Not so many years ago we thought gymnastics could never compete against the best nations in the world and now they’ve shown that they really are one of the best nations in the world.”
The first splash was on day two when Adam Peaty shredded the world record to take the 100m breaststroke gold. After some brief disappointments in road cycling, the so-called minor sports began tossing medals into the pot ( basketball, football, handball, volleyball, water polo and wrestling were the only sports not contested by GB).
On the day Chris Froome was only third in the time trial, Joe Clarke caused a shock in K1 canoe slaloming by winning gold and then Jack Laugher and Chris Mears claimed Britain’s first Olympic diving gold in the men’s synchronised three metres springboard. These victories tested the knowledge of even the most seasoned Olympic reporters and made tracking British success a full-time job.
The biggest names now form a new aristocracy. Katherine Grainger, 40 when she became the joint most decorated female British Olympian of all-time, stands in a throng with Wiggins – the first British athlete to win eight Olympic medals – Helen Glover and Heather Stanning, who extended their winning run to 39 in the women’s rowing pairs, and Nick Skelton, who won showjumping gold aged 58. Adams was watched by 5.3 million TV viewers as she became the first British boxer in 92 years to retain an Olympic title. Stories, stories everywhere.
To imagine an even better return in Tokyo four years from now is hard, so Bill Sweeney, the head of the BOA, is tempering expectations: “Tokyo will definitely be tougher than Rio,” he says. “You will find a much stronger team on the domestic front than we faced in Brazil. For political reasons you will see a Chinese team desperate to make a very strong statement on their doorstep in Tokyo. Their squad is a very young squad, a developing one. So that will be tough. The Australians won’t lie down. They will go away from these Games and improve. You will have a full Russian delegation as well. It will be a tough one to repeat. But the general feeling is that we have enough athletes going through to Tokyo, the system is in shape, to carry on that success.”
The first British reconnaissance party flies to Japan in October. The big funding decisions will be taken in December – in the same year as the Rio goldrush. The luxury goods factory keeps rolling.
There are times when it might seem vulgar. Soft medals are targeted, countries are blown away by British spending. A three-week fiesta will probably have no bearing on Britain’s place in Europe or even its sense of itself, politically. But who could doubt the appeal of seeing a country that was ripping itself apart come back together for such an engulfing wave of pleasure. The spirit of London 2012 decamped to Rio, and was even stronger there. Its motto might be: ‘Faster, Higher, Wonga.’
Leading the charge: Nicola Adams (main) triumphed in the boxing; Laura Trott and Jason Kenny were cycling gold medallists