Britain’s Olympians shot from 36th in the medal table 25 years ago in Atlanta to fourth in Beijing (2008), third in London (2012) and second in Rio last time out. But the new Olympic superpower stands in Tokyo at a crossroads.
Team GB’s spectacular rise from the “shame” of the Atlanta Games to Olympic medal factory was the product of talent, tenacity and state investment on a scale public services in Britain can only envy.
The transfer of hundreds of millions of pounds from low income gamblers through the National Lottery to elite athletes financed the deepest transformation in modern Olympic history. Dozens of household names supplanted the Corinthians who valiantly bore the flame before the World Class Performance sprang from the ignominy of Atlanta. Britain’s 25-year path from irrelevant to irresistible has generated envy, dread, resentment and inevitable suspicion.
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But what happens After the Gold Rush, to borrow Neil Young’s song?
Has the medal mania blown through, or will another lavish expedition extend the gains of the last two decades? For Britain to become the first Olympic host nation (in 2012) to increase its medal tally at the subsequent Games (in Rio) tells you everything about the effectiveness of the £274m pumped into the 2016 funding cycle by UK Sport. A similar amount has gushed into the Tokyo campaign.
First Britain was mortified, then it plundered the Lottery, then it embraced a ruthless ‘No Compromise' policy open to winners only, then it examined its medal mountain and winced a bit. Now the official talk is of “winning the right way.” For Paris in 2024, more athletes will be funded across more sports. Those under-performing now but with hopes for 2024-28 won’t always be frogmarched out with no money.
The struggle around the British gold rush goes to the heart of what Olympic sport is for: building 70 supermen and women or feeding the roots of all 26 sports Team GB have entered in Japan? Is the 17-day, bubbled extravaganza meant to inspire children and boost grass roots sport or churn out legends who then cash in on their victories? Britain’s extravagance has been framed in some countries as vulgarity, a violation of the Olympic ideal.

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But the scheme did its job. Life-affirming stories rolled off the presses, as they will in Tokyo. If in doubt, read how Caroline Dubois had to pass herself off as ‘Colin’ in boxing gyms to learn her sport; how she’s descended from an African-American slave who gained her freedom in the bare-knuckle ring. A truism is that everybody at the Olympics has - is - a story. Britain has produced volumes of them.
Now though Team GB approach a junction. One sign points to a dignified retreat to a more realistic and less expensive medal count. Another says: keep going, keep pushing, stay on America’s heels at the top, don’t abandon the drug of winning, give the British public more radiant podium nights, more heroes and heroines; stay addicted.
That decision isn’t just Britain’s to take. Covid, disruption to training programmes and the competition calendar, and the possibility that less dope testing during the pandemic has allowed more of the 11,000 participants in Tokyo to cheat are all big variables. Nobody can be sure how truly Tokyo's results will reflect the order of merit in each discipline. These Games are a leap into the unknown on as well as off the field of play. On Sunday for example six GB athletes were forced to isolate after a positive test on flights to Japan.
Paradoxically, Covid takes pressure off the British Olympic movement to justify its funding (£32.6m on rowing, £26m on sailing - two largely middle-class, private sector sports). Britain is hooked on gold but there is too much else to worry about for us to fixate on whether the Rio medal count will go up or down. Pandemic weariness should allow British Olympic sport to ease its way from ‘No Compromise’ towards more tea and sympathy for athletes. There’s no National Union of Lottery Players to vent their anger. Most TV viewers will be amazed that the Games are even happening.
Core strengths sustain the Tokyo campaign. Of Britain’s 376 athletes, 51 are already Olympic medallists and 121 have experience of the Games. For the first time more than 50% of the team is female. Stars abound. Jason Kenny is tied with Chris Hoy on six gold medals and Laura Kenny is already GB’s leading woman Olympian with four. The seemingly invincible Adam Peaty (swimming), Charlotte Dujardin (equestrian), Dina Asher-Smith (athletics) Jade Jones (Taekwondo) and Hannah Mills (sailing) are other aristocrats whose presence will inspire what the British team are calling “the largest ever delegation for an Olympic Games on foreign soil.”
Until the political class recoiled in shame from the one gold medal in 1996, and sent money flooding into Olympic sport, Britain was a regular top-15 finisher. In Rio five years ago, it finished above China, with Russia, Germany and Japan further back. Miraculous.
Marginal gains, “the tyranny of the normal” and “no compromise” now sound dated, pseudo-religious. Britain is about to find out whether it can still win with the zeal and the mantras dialled down to something closer to economic and ethical reality. Can British Olympic success augment the life of the nation as well as the lives of those on the podium? After the 67 medals in Rio the target now is 45 to 70. Not for the first time in its history, Britain may be seeking a slow retreat from empire, but there are no plans to give up power completely.
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