Roger Alton

The great Games

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The other day, I was listening to Radio 5 from Crystal Palace, where there had been a Diamond League athletics meeting. By this time the stadium was all but closed, the event had finished, the lights were out and the rain was falling. But what the commentators were seeing was this: in the deserted stadium Mo Farah and his training partner Galen Rupp were being put through a series of 200m interval sprints by their trainer, the legendary Cuban Alberto Salazar. As they churned out endless 25-second runs in the rain, the final touches were being put to a training regime that was to climax in last weekend’s epic 10,000m victory for Farah — not to mention Rupp’s own silver medal.

Salazar, who was recently the subject of a brilliant New Yorker profile by Malcolm Gladwell, was for a brief period in the 1980s one of the finest distance runners in the world. Now he heads the Oregon project for distance training where Farah and Rupp work together. The extraordinary achievement of those two runners in breaking the African control of distance events is in large part down to the determination of Salazar.

In 2007 he collapsed and his heart stopped beating: his brain was deprived of oxygen for 14 minutes before doctors got his heart fluttering back to life. ‘None of the doctors who treated me, and none of the experts I’ve consulted since the day I collapsed, have ever heard of anybody being gone for that long and coming back to full health,’ Salazar writes in his book, appropriately called 14 Minutes. With that sort of grit in his trainer, who would bet against Farah now bagging another gold in the 5000m on Saturday?

What a wonderful weepy Games this is. So what was your moment? The sculler Kat Copeland, her face the image of the Games, frozen in ecstasy, mouthing ‘We’ve won the Olympics’ to her partner Sophie Hosking; or maybe little Henry Caplan, 11, getting a hug from Andy Murray; or perhaps, the curious case of the broadcaster-turned-fan John Inverdale practically breaking down after interviewing the two rowers who had only (only, for heaven’s sake, it was a bloody triumph) got a silver; or Britain’s brilliant gymnastics team picking up bronze, all working-class boys excelling in a sport where you don’t need much to start, just a pair of shorts and a floor to practise on. Extraordinary brilliance all over the place. But there’s one image that sticks in my mind — and it is of the real hero of these Olympics.

In the early days of the Games you could see Sir John and Lady Major quietly enjoying themselves at the swimming. Sir John could have allowed himself a quiet smile of pride at it all, though he’s probably too modest to have done so. But in truth these Olympics owe more to him than to anyone else. In 1993 he set up the National Lottery to a lot of hostile commentary about regressive taxation, or taking from the gullible poor to give to the snooty rich at the opera. Hogwash. It is lottery funding that has driven the vertiginous rise of British sport. In 1996 at Atlanta, Great Britain won 15 medals, with just one gold, and finished 36th. The next year the lottery started pumping money directly into elite sports. In Beijing 2008, GB ranked fourth with 19 gold, 13 silver, and 15 bronze. And this year, more medals than ever before.

The sums are colossal, nearly £4.5 billion since funding began. This year alone, rowing has had £27.3 million, and has delivered on the investment with nine medals. Cycling has had £26 million; sailing £22.9 million; swimming £25.1 million. But it’s not just the elite medal-winners in showcase sports who should thank John Major. It is also the countless sportsmen and women in anything from archery to wrestling who can thank the lottery for letting them pursue their dreams.