Never forget Atlanta. Every time a British athlete wins a gold medal at the Olympic Games in Rio, remember the Atlanta Games of 1996. I was there, and I saw some great sport — and absolutely none of it was British. Great Britain finished 36th in the medal table, behind Kazakhstan, Algeria, Belgium and Ireland.
There was a single British gold medal, and I missed it. It was won by Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent, now both sirs: two enormous boys on the burning deck. For the rest, eight silvers and six bronzes seemed to confirm the nature of our sporting culture: the nation that aimed low and missed.
Simon Barnes on Team GB’s Olympic success:
Why were we so bad at sport? If you worked as a sportswriter back then, you needed a good answer. We just don’t have a winning mentality in this country, people complained. My line was that we just didn’t have a winning system: too much of British sport was still a gentlemanly muddle.
A few years after Atlanta, I attended a training camp for British swimmers in Cyprus. An Australian coach called Bill Sweetenham was then in charge. He had a vast belly, a fat man’s swagger, a voice that could clear a crowded bar and a deep love for the pursuit of victory.
And the Brits in their tracksuits had never heard anything like it. Who wants to be ordinary? Not me. Well if you don’t want to be ordinary, this is what you have to do. And don’t think it’s going to be easy…
To buy a lottery ticket is a long-odds shot at becoming extraordinary: transforming your life for the price of a little loose change. It was John Major’s idea, after Atlanta — and a fifth of all that lovely money goes to sport, as Andrew Marr points out in this week’s Diary. That adds up to around £350 million in the course of the four-year Olympic cycle, and covers Olympic and Paralympic sports.
It’s not simple. Money is handy stuff in many ways, but it can be hard to get the best out of it. When it comes to public spending you can fudge things and produce figures which show that although it may look to uninformed people as if you’re doing a terrible job, you are in fact doing frightfully well. Sport is not like that. There are no damned lies in the medal table. You can never put enough spin on a defeat to turn it into victory, for all that half the managers in the Premier League attempt the feat every weekend. Sport’s great charm is its ultimate lack of ambiguity. The silver medal is the prize they give to the fastest loser — you know the sort of thing.
So UK Sport didn’t just look for decent athletes and back them. It also looked for sports in which Britain had a serious chance of winning a medal. Vulnerable sports, if you like. Sports that would fall to a full-scale assault of money and talent.
So it was — and is — no good being talented at table tennis: the vast global pool of talent is far too enormous and medals are the most distant of dreams. Plenty of Brits play basketball, but they’re miles behind the best and, besides, there’s only one Olympic medal on offer. It’s not about funding individuals and teams to fulfil their potential, it’s not about the pure quest for excellence and it’s nothing to do with idealism. It’s about medals.
The idea was to create medal machines and the classic example is British cycling. The plan has worked best in the velodrome: a small, specialised arena in which an athlete might take part in the individual or the team pursuit of medals. At one time the British saw this as a comic sideshow: funny hats, Fred Flintstone wheels and riders trying to stick their noses up each other’s bottoms at 40 mph. Suddenly it was a sport busting with medals that nobody was seriously chasing. Not as seriously as we were, anyway…
However good the machine, you need the athletes. You need your pathfinders: the ones who can defy the balance of world power in a sport, establish a road to victory and show other British athletes that they can tread it, too. These are the people who have made the machine work: the ghosts in the machine.
Back in Atlanta, Chris Boardman won a cycling bronze in the road time trial. Four years on in Sydney, Jason Queally won a gold on the track. In Athens in 2004, Chris Hoy and Bradley Wiggins (both now sirs) won a gold medal each. In Beijing in 2008, British cyclists won eight golds, with three going to Hoy. And the process continues, like the first chapter of St Matthew’s gospel: Boardman begat Queally and Queally begat Hoy and Wiggo, and Hoy and Wiggo begat Jason Kenny and Kenny begat Callum Skinner…
First find your talent. Lizzy Yarnold took up the heptathlon after watching Denise Lewis win a gold medal at the Sydney Olympic Games of 2000, but she was never much good. So she took part in the Girls4Gold talent–spotting exercise, believing she’d be better suited to the horsey sports. UK Sport’s talent-spotters suggested she try the skeleton bob: the sport in which you go down the toboggan run headfirst. She won gold at the Sochi Winter Games in 2014.
In a sense Yarnold was a natural: she won her first race. She’d never have got anywhere if she hadn’t had the right stuff: the explosive power needed at the start allied to the courage and cool to drive the sled, and with all that the willingness to change everything and live the life of a champion. But she’d never have had the chance to show her natural abilities — and to go beyond them — without the artificial intrusion of the talent-spotters.
It’s not a romantic business. It’s not entirely attractive, either. Sweetenham was accused of bullying. Shane Sutton, another Australian and former head of the British cycling team, was suspended and then resigned after allegations of sexist behaviour and derogatory remarks about Paralympians.
The greatest triumph of British sport has been in sports where the British were once no-hopers. In dressage, Britain was a laughing stock, especially if you were German. But the pioneering Carl Hester did the pathfinding job and gave British riders international manège-cred. Britain followed two golds in 2012 with two more medals in Rio, a silver in the team event and individual gold for Charlotte Dujardin, Hester’s greatest protégée.
There was a time when British gymnasts found it hard to get lottery funding because they were so far off the pace. Again, there were pathfinders: Beth Tweddle and Dan Keatings. This week Max Whitlock won two gold medals in the space of an hour, on the floor and on the pommel horse: and all this after his still more remarkable bronze in the all-around. In total, Britain won an astonishing seven medals in gymnastics.
So it’s about creating a culture of marginal gains and zero compromise, and pursuing it with rigour. It’s about talent-spotting, and looking for exceptional individuals. Stewart Laing, senior lead performance pathway scientist at the English Institute of Sport, said: ‘In a way we’re looking for people who want to win twice. It’s not enough just to come first: you must also want to set a new personal best when you do so.’
In the end, even with the most regimented of systems, it’s not about the machine, it’s about the ghost. It’s about the soul of the athlete, it’s about that impossibly elusive thing they call team spirit. Discussion of sports tends to come back to coaches and managers and performance directors, just as discussion of sporting history tends to be about politicians and the horrible old men who run international sporting federations. But sport is not about them at all.
No: it’s about athletes. And whether you are a Chinese diver or a British cyclist, the winning of a medal ultimately comes down to matters beyond analysis. You can’t create greatness, in sport or anywhere else: you can only give individuals and teams the chance to seek greatness. That’s when you discover the people who don’t want to be ordinary: the people prepared to be extraordinary.
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.