‘Brutal but effective’: lottery funding secures 100 golds for Team GB – The Guardian
Author Аbout_SportReading 6 minViews1Published by
As the action at the Tokyo Olympics gathers pace, Britons can expect further moments of glory and tragedy, triumph and heartache to match those from the opening days of the Games. But whatever drama unfurls on their screens they can, and will, expect medals.
Few are likely to, but perhaps British sports fans should pause for a moment and reflect on just how spoiled they are. Those with longer memories will remember the dull days of the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, when Great Britain won one gold and only 15 medals overall, finishing 36th in the table.
A quarter of a century later and Team GB won their 100th gold medal since Atlanta at the Tokyo Games on Monday, swiftly followed by numbers 101 and 102 in five hours of intense action. First Adam Peaty recorded the milestone 100th gold by defending his 100m breaststroke title in the pool, before Tom Daley and Matty Lee ended Chinese dominance in the synchronised 10m platform diving and Tom Pidcock dominated the field in the men’s cross-country mountain bike race.
Since the nadir of Atlanta, often referred to as “ground zero” in the quest to rebuild the nation’s sporting pedigree, Great Britain has become an Olympic and Paralympic superpower.
In the two and a half decades since, Chris Hoy has powered his way to three golds in track cycling in Beijing 2008, we have seen Jessica Ennis-Hill, Greg Rutherford and Mo Farah all win gold in an unforgettable 44 minutes inside the Olympic Stadium on Super Saturday at London 2012, and the women’s hockey team won GB’s first hockey gold in a dramatic penalty shootout in Rio in 2016.
The Team GB women’s hockey team celebrate a goal on their way to winning gold in Rio. Photograph: Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters
Sir Hugh Robertson, the chair of the British Olympic Association, says the national lottery funding injected into Olympic sports in 1997 in the wake of Atlanta has propelled this small island nation into the company of the Olympic big hitters.
The 100th gold since the introduction of sustained funding is “a moment that graphically illustrates the turnaround in British Olympic fortunes”, he says. “Our recent record would be a pretty remarkable achievement for any country, but it is a particularly remarkable achievement for a country of our size.”
Team GB defied expectations in Rio 2016 when it delivered Great Britain’s best performance at an Olympic Games, finishing second in the medal table with 67 gongs including 27 golds. That was up from 65 achieved on home soil at London 2012, when Great Britain came third overall.
Attempting modesty without the least success, he adds: “It sounds a little bit conceited to say it, but I don’t think there is another sports team in this country that has been as successful as Team GB. And that is down to the transformational effect of lottery funding.”
The funding agency UK Sport has poured £345m into Olympic sports programmes for Tokyo, up from £274m for Rio and £264m for London.
That money pays for a small army of support teams around Olympians, from masseurs to physiotherapists, nutritionists and coaches. “To win a gold medal, you need four things,” says Robertson. “Money, structure, coaching and athletes with the right sort of preparation and mental toughness. The money enables the sports to put the right structure, to find the right coaches and, crucially, it allows the athletes to be able to train full time.”
When Lauren Williams won silver in the 67kg taekwondo on Monday, amid the disappointment and refusal to make excuses for not taking gold, she added: “A massive thank-you to the national lottery for getting me here.”
Denise Lewis – the only British woman to win a medal at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, with a bronze in the heptathlon – could be forgiven for looking at the current structure with envy. As a young athlete, she says, she was “master of her own destiny”, scrabbling for funding for physios and scans, training outside with part-time coaches.
“You can only do what you can and you’re born in the era that you’re born into,” says Lewis, who went on to win gold at Sydney in 2000. “I think, looking back, if I’d had more support … maybe I would have been a better athlete. But it isn’t about living in the past for me, it is about celebrating what has been achieved. Now, when I look to Tokyo, when I think of London and Rio – it’s just a real success story.”
Denise Lewis (right) celebrates bronze at Atlanta in 1996. ‘If I’d had more support … maybe I would have been a better athlete.’ Photograph: SAG
UK Sport’s attitude to funding is often called the “no compromise” approach – in its pursuit of medals, the best-performing sports get more funding. Another way to describe it would be “brutal but effective”, says Dr Borja Garcia, a senior lecturer in sports management and policy at Loughborough University.
“The strategy has undoubtedly delivered and been very efficient with resources. But does it have a darker side? Yes, I think it does,” he says.
“It is an arms race, and in my view it’s creating excessive demands on athletes and tempting sport governing bodies to, let’s say, prioritise results over the welfare of the athletes. I also question whether that has had a real benefit in terms of increasing participation, and producing a healthier nation, and really don’t think it has.”
According to Sport England’s active lives survey, in November 2016, 62.1% of the adult population were active for at least 150 minutes a week, but in November 2019 that figure was 61.4%. Recent data revealed 2.3 million children (about 31% of those aged four to 16 in England) did not manage 30 minutes of activity a day during the pandemic – an increase of 2.4% on 2019.
So does it matter if Team GB have won 100 golds? Robertson argues that the money invested in elite Olympic sport is relatively modest for the results it produces.
“I think, as a country, it is good for us to be really good at things,” he says. “And the example that the Olympian shows is a really good one for young people growing up in this country … It’s about having a dream, and carrying it out.”