Ideas

British Medal Machine: From Lone Gold In Atlanta To A Spectacular Second Position In Rio2016

British Olympic gold medal winning rowers Helen Glover and Heather Stanning. Photo credit: Christopher Lee/GettyImages
Snapshot
  • A raft of medals across various disciplines from sailing, cycling, gymnastics and diving has ensured that the UK has shed the tag of sporting losers.

Veteran UK sports journalist and author Simon Barnes talks in a podcast about how Britain has transformed itself into a major force in Rio Olympics. The days of Britain being a nation of sporting losers is a thing of the past. The country has won 67 medals including 27 golds, 23 silvers and  17 bronzes. It stands second on the medals table of Rio2016.

In historical terms, Barnes said, the success achieved by Britain at the Rio Olympics was sudden. Even though it all started after Atlanta games in 1996 which saw the country finishing 36th in the medals table - one gold among them. It was behind Kazakhstan, Algeria, Belgium and Ireland.

Following the poor Atlanta showing, everything in the UK sport looked very dreadful, Barnes recalls.

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So, what turned the tide for the UK?

According to Barnes, the ‘invention’ of the national lottery by former prime minister John Major was the turning point. A fifth for the proceeds generated from the lottery was redirected to sport.

“Money makes a lot of difference, and you have to spend it well,” he said.

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The strategy was not a pursuit of excellence but a pursuit of winning medals.

“The other UK initiatives undertaken were secularisation of sport, making it a very practical and hard nose business, in which medals were the currency, medals were what mattered,” he said.

So they found talented individuals and directed them to sports like cycling, which after the Athens games of 2004 had become a sort of killing ground for UK athletes, leaving rest of the sporting nations far behind.

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Funding in sports like rowing, cycling and gymnastics has made all the difference.

“Sports always require money, it is a serious business and a full-time occupation, and it has been for so many years,” Barnes said.

The idea of doing good in sport is romantic, but the practicality of it comes down to the total dedication of the process of victory at the expense of all else.

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People call it sacrifice, but for Barnes, it is a choice an individual makes to be the best and win medals.

He also highlighted how Britain has ‘invaded’ in a sport like gymnastics, winning seven medals this time around. If we look at the recent past, Britain was a complete no-hoper in gymnastics.

Read full piece by Barnes on what drives Team GB’s medal machine here

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