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 Daily Telegraph - Total Football - - NEWS -

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

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