In Focus: Team GB rule in Rio – but what next for our golden athletes?
By Neil Hawkins
Rio was an Olympics of firsts for Team GB.
A first ever diving gold was followed by a first ever gymnastics gold. Great Britain and Northern Ireland then became the first country to ever increase their medal total four years after playing hosts.
The team was set a target of at least 48 medals for Rio, 17 less than London, but a total that would surpass Beijing in 2008 and result in Britain’s best ever away Games performance.
The final total was the team’s best in 108 years – a stunning 67 medals, including 27 golds, and second place in the medal table above mighty China.
Medals were won in 19 of the 31 disciplines, the best return from any country in Brazil.
Mo Farah cemented his place as the greatest runner to ever represent Team GB by securing his double-double – consecutive Olympic wins in the 10,000m and 5,000m events. Britain dominated the velodrome, with Sir Bradley Wiggins, Laura Trott and Jason Kenny all breaking records on their way to gold as every member of the team won a medal. The rowers and sailors picked up more metal, as did the women’s hockey team, the boxers and the amazing Brownlee brothers in the triathlon.
But it was in the pool and gymnastics where Team GB exceeded expectations and broke into unknown territory for British athletes.
Adam Peaty started the Rio gold rush when he smashed his own world-record to win the men’s 100m breaststroke – the first men’s gold in the pool for 28-years. His stunning win was followed by five silvers for the swim team, meaning Team GB equalled their best medal haul in the pool for 100 years and doubled the amount of medals won in London.
A first ever British diving gold for Jack Laugher and Chris Mears in the 3m synchronised springboard was one of the most memorable of the Games, no less for the green pool they were diving into. Laugher followed that up with silver in the 3m springboard, and Tom Daley and Dan Goodfellow won bronze in the synchronised 10m platform.
The gymnastics saw Team GB win an unprecedented seven medals, including two scintillating golds from Max Whitlock in the individual floor and pommel horse to become the first ever British Olympic gold medallist in the sport. Two silvers and three more bronze medals made gymnastics the standout sport of Rio for Team GB.
What each of these sports have in common is they all met and then bettered the medal target set by funding body UK Sport.
Their success will once again call into question the way in which UK Sport distribute the Lottery money ahead of Tokyo in 2020. The three sports succeeded despite getting a smaller share of the £274m pot than athletics, rowing, sailing and cycling. Of these four sports, only cycling beat its medal target, with the others either failing or just hitting the minimum requirement.
Between them, swimming, gymnastics and diving shared just under £43m for the four-year cycle following London. Swimming received £20.7m, gymnastics, £14.6m, with £7.4m for diving.
If a familiar pattern follows previous Olympic cycles, all three sports can expect a deserved significant rise in funding ahead of Tokyo. We’re yet to see, but it seems inevitable that the exploits of Laugher, Jazz Carlin and Amy Tinkler will inspire more people to take part in these minority sports and fuel future Olympic success.
UCFB Wembley’s Desislava Goranova, Programme Leader of the BA (Hons) Stadium & Event Management degree and former national champion in rhythmic gymnastics in Bulgaria, has studied Olympic participation and funding in recent years, and extensively researched the legacy Olympic Games leave in host countries.
She said: “We see sports outside the targeted almost repeatedly meet and exceed targets. Target funding is not uncommon in nations’ sport systems, but what we see in Team GB’s Olympic performance is that the list of targeted sports might need revising.”
Rowing received nearly £33m of funding ahead of Rio and finished with five medals, below the target of 6-8. Historically Britain has always been one the strongest nations on the water, and tends to favour top heavy funding for team sports where it sees realistic medal chances, but will we see its funding decrease similar to swimming after its poor showing in 2012?
Athletics though is where the most scrutiny will lie over funding. It received £27m for this Olympic cycle and was set a target of 7-9 medals, achieving that minimum goal. Seven medals is the best return in track and field since Lottery funding was introduced in 1997, after Games of six, four, four and six medals respectively.
However, four of the medals in Rio came from the same heroes as 2012 – Farah, Jessica Ennis-Hill and Greg Rutherford, and two came from both women’s relay teams. Aside from the brilliant surprise bronze from hammer thrower Sophie Hitchon, there wasn’t another individual who won a medal. Sprinters Adam Gemili and Dina Asher-Smith performed admirably, but ultimately came up short.
The athletics squad is bigger than any other in the team, but going on previous cycles where success is financially rewarded over the next four-year cycle, should it receive double the amount of funding of gymnastics, which clearly has a talent identification and training programme among the best in the world?
Desi said: “It’s been recognised that changes in funding are needed. But what is more important to appreciate is that while a few million pounds cut from the wealthy sports would not damage their performance, re-distributing them to other prospective sports may lead to a significant and positive difference.”
What cannot be overlooked though is the sheer number of events in which Team GB finished with medals. Their spread across 19 sports was the best return of any nation in Rio. The likes of taekwondo, trap shooting, judo and badminton all yielded results. The spread of medals simply wouldn’t be possible without the extra funding to these disciplines.
Each British medal in Rio cost £4.1m (£4.3m when not including the medals won in tennis, golf and rugby sevens which don’t receive Lottery funding). The Sport Industry Research Centre broke it down even further to add the haul of medals cost each Briton £1.09.
Desi commented: “Medal numbers have grown to be a common way of measuring success and performance in Olympic sports. But the real value for money should be considered in other aspects as well. Will the success of Team GB inspire and boost participation in years to come, and will it lead to a wider and stronger talent pool in as many sports as possible?
“Success does not exist in isolation. It depends on many factors and has an impact on different areas of sport too. Consequently, so does funding.”
The allocation of funding will never be a perfect system, it can’t be. But with Team GB climbing from 36th to second in the medal table in just 20 years, it’s hard to argue that it doesn’t work.