Great British blueprint continues to deliver success and Olympic Games medals after remarkable turnaround

Having attempted to claim Lee Lai-shan’s gold medal as their own in 1996 following a disastrous showing in Atlanta, Britain are on course to claim second place in the medals table ahead of China in Rio de Janeiro

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 August, 2016, 6:13pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 August, 2016, 10:18pm

In 1996, British newspapers mockingly claimed Lee Lai-shan as their own. Great Britain had won just a single gold medal at the Atlanta Games through the legendary men’s coxless rowing pair of Matthew Pinsent and Steve Redgrave.

They wanted to double their tally with the gold of windsurfer Lee, who at the time was representing a British colony. It was Britain’s worst Olympic performance in 44 years.

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Twenty years is a long time in sport and Great Britain have risen majestically from that woeful Atlanta performance when they won 15 medals and finished 36th in the standings.

In Rio de Janeiro, as of Saturday night, Great Britain were in second place with 27 golds out of 66 medals won.

But their improvement came long before Rio. They won 65 medals in London and beat that record in Brazil. But what did Britain do to raise standards so effectively?

First, hosting the 2012 Olympics provided a major boost to sports development. The London Games itself left a positive legacy that the British athletes are making the most of in Rio.

National lottery money has provided millions of pounds in development funds and a ruthless “no compromise” principle has been enacted to punish sports that do not perform.

UK Sport provided more than £300 million (HK$3 billion) in funding for a widespread development and training programme for the London Olympics Games.

For Rio, it was raised to £350m. The UK has also focused on sports that bring results on the international stage and prove that they have the potential to produce world-class athletes.

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Athletics, boxing, rowing and cycling, in which British riders have been dominant in Rio, are among the sports that have benefited from increased funding while less successful pursuits such as table tennis and volleyball have suffered cuts.

Cycling has been a gold mine for Britain in Rio, with six gold medals in the velodrome, while Max Whitlock ended the country’s 116 year wait for a gymnastics title with a double triumph in the floor exercises and pommel horse.

Gymnastics in Britain has received increased funding, according to British media, over the past 20 years after a bleak period when the sport was told it was no longer eligible for assistance.

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Although many have criticised the no compromise policy, saying it has affected grassroots sports, Rod Carr, chairman of UK Sport, said it was working.

“In the early 2000s, gymnastics was in a pretty low state,” he was quoted as saying. “They hadn’t had a good Games at Sydney, and their funding was cut on behalf of that.

“They went right back to basics, they disassembled their programme and looked at what was working, and what wasn’t, and then built it up again.”

UK Sport also provides individual funding for “podium level athletes”. Elite sportsmen and women received up to £28,000 a year while even a top eight finish in the Olympics can earn an athlete £21,500 a year.

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Of all the sports funded by UK Sport, rowing receives the most money and were able to justify its status with three gold medals in Rio along with two silvers, including one for Hong Kong-raised women’s eights rower Melanie Wilson.

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Cycling is the second-best funded sport while swimming, which still produced a gold medal in 100 metres breaststroker Adam Peaty, is one of the few sports that have succeeded with reduced funding.

Carr said that Britain will continue with their development policies over the next Olympic cycle and is looking forward to even more medals in the 2020 Tokyo Games. And for those sports that are unlikely to have representatives in Tokyo, Carr has a stark warning.

“What we’re not going to do is invest in sports that frankly right now, stand little chance of actually competing in Tokyo,” he said.

I will be rowing for Hong Kong too, says British hope Melanie Wilson

Meanwhile, Jennie Price, chief executive of Sport England, told British media that the knock-on effect of Britain’s success in Rio will help to raise awareness of sport in the country, not only in the pursuit of Olympic medals but also participation.

“Watching our athletes achieving great things in Rio is truly inspirational, particularly for young people. Whether it encourages them to get more active, try something new or even strive for gold themselves one day, Team GB is making a massive contribution to sport back home,” she was quoted as saying.

Meanwhile, the Hong Kong media will take a leaf out their British counterparts books from 20 years ago and claim rower Wilson’s silver medal as ours.