Paul Hayward: Tokyo 2020 presents a crossroads for Team GB’s recent Olympics gold rush
The British Olympians went from 36th place on the medal table 25 years ago in Atlanta to fourth in Beijing (2008), third in London (2012) and second in Rio last time around. But the new Olympic superpower is in Tokyo at a crossroads.
Team GB’s dramatic rise from the ‘shame’ of the Atlanta Games to the Olympic medal factory was the product of talent, tenacity and state investment on a scale that UK utilities can only envy.
The transfer of hundreds of millions of pounds from low-income players via the national lottery to elite athletes has funded the most profound transformation in modern Olympic history. Dozens of household names have supplanted the Corinthians who valiantly carried the flame before World Class Performance arose out of Atlanta’s ignominy. Britain’s 25-year journey from irrelevant to irresistible has generated envy, terror, resentment and inevitable suspicion.
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But what happens after the gold rush, to borrow the song from Neil Young?
Has the medal madness gone, or will another lavish expedition extend the gains of the past two decades? That Britain becomes the first Olympic host country (in 2012) to increase its medal count at the following Games (in Rio) tells you all about the effectiveness of the £ 274million injected into the 2016 funding round by UK Sport. A similar amount has sprung up in the Tokyo countryside.
Britain was mortified first, then plundered the lottery, then adopted a ruthless “no compromise” policy open only to winners, then looked at its mountain of medals and winced slightly. Now the official talk is to “win the right way”. For Paris in 2024, more athletes will be funded in more sports. Those who are underperforming now but with hopes for 2024-2028 will not always be eliminated without money.
The fight over the British Gold Rush goes to the heart of the raison d’être of Olympic sport: to build 70 supermen and women or to nurture the roots of the 26 sports that the GB team has entered in Japan? Is the bubbling 17-day extravaganza meant to inspire kids and boost grassroots sport or produce legends who then cash in on their victories? British extravagance has been presented in some countries as vulgarity, a violation of the Olympic ideal.
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But the regime has done its job. Stories that affirm life have come off the press, as they will in Tokyo. If in doubt, read how Caroline Dubois had to impersonate “Colin” in the boxing halls to learn her sport; how she descends from an African-American slave who won her freedom in the ring. One truism is that everyone at the Olympics has – is – a story. Great Britain has produced volumes of it.
Now the GB team is approaching a crossover. A sign indicates a dignified retreat towards a more realistic and less expensive medal count. Another said: keep it up, keep pushing, stay on America’s heels at the top, don’t give up the victory drug, give the British public brighter evenings on the podium, more heroes and heroines ; stay addicted.
Paradoxically, Covid is pressuring the British Olympic movement to justify its funding (£ 32.6million for rowing, £ 26million for sailing – two sports largely from the middle class and the private sector) . Britain is addicted to gold, but there is too much to fear for us to focus on raising or lowering the number of medals in Rio. Pandemic weariness should allow British Olympic sport to move from “No Compromise” to more tea and sympathy for athletes. There is no National Union of Lottery Players to express their anger. Most viewers will be amazed that the Games even go on.
The main assets are supporting the Tokyo campaign. Of the 376 British athletes, 51 are already Olympic medalists and 121 have Games experience. For the first time, more than 50% of the team is female. The stars abound. Jason Kenny is tied with Chris Hoy on six gold medals and Laura Kenny is already GB’s top Olympian with four. Seemingly invincible Adam Peaty (swimming), Charlotte Dujardin (horseback riding), Dina Asher-Smith (athletics), Jade Jones (Taekwondo) and Hannah Mills (sailing) are other aristocrats whose presence will inspire what the British team calls “the largest ever delegation for an Olympic Games on foreign soil.”
Until the political class recoiled in shame after the only gold medal in 1996 and poured money into Olympic sport, Britain was consistently in the top 15. In Rio there are five. years, he finished above China, with Russia, Germany and Japan further. Miraculous.
Marginal gains, “the tyranny of the normal” and “without compromise” now sound outdated, pseudo-religious. Britain is on the verge of whether it can still win with zeal and mantras reduced to something closer to economic and ethical reality. Can British Olympic success increase the life of the nation as well as the lives of those on the podium? After the 67 medals in Rio, the target is now 45 to 70. Not for the first time in its history, Britain may be looking to slowly withdraw from the empire, but there are no plans to completely relinquish power.
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