100 golds for £1.2billion, but what’s the genuine value compensated? Lottery money aided to fund the earn-at-all-prices approach that has assisted Crew GB adjust life, forge memories and produce legends
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It might come on Sunday. It could be Jade Jones, the Welsh taekwondo athlete. ‘The Headhunter’ is in search of her third Olympic triumph in a row to become the most decorated taekwondo athlete in Games history.
If it’s not Jones, it will be Adam Peaty on Monday. The 100m breaststroke is as close to a certainty as you can get at the Olympics. He breezed into the semi-finals on Saturday, holds the 18 fastest times in history, has won the last three world championships and triumphed in Rio. It’s a home banker.
One of these athletes should win Team GB’s first gold medal in Tokyo. Not only that, it will also mark a monumental milestone. It will be the 100th gold medal for Team GB since the introduction of Lottery funding 24 years ago.
Sir Hugh Robertson, the British Olympic Association Chairman, says reaching 100 gold medals since the introduction of Lottery funding will be ‘a remarkable achievement’
One hundred gold medals since the embarrassment of Atlanta, when Britain finished 36th in the medal table with a solitary Steve Redgrave gold to their name. One hundred gold medals since Great Britain became a medal-winning machine.
Eleven in Sydney. Nine in Athens. Nineteen in Beijing. Just the 29 in London and a further 27 in Rio. Four others at the Winter Olympics. And now the first of many at Tokyo.
Team GB were fourth in the medal table in Beijing, third in London and second in Rio. It is, in the words of the British Olympic Association chairman Sir Hugh Robertson, ‘a remarkable achievement’.
‘I think there is a very persuasive argument that over the last decade Team GB has been the most successful team the country has produced,’ Robertson told The Mail on Sunday.
‘I remember that slight sense of embarrassment [after Atlanta] that a country that had made such contribution to devolvement of the Olympics, had such a rich sporting heritage was proving to be so inept on the field of play. We were lagging behind as a cheerful set of amateurs. The change, the seismic change, that has driven Britain’s success since is the introduction of Lottery Funding.’
Jade Jones, the Welsh taekwondo athlete is in search of her third Olympic triumph in a row
Every week, when your grandma shuffles down to the corner shop for her Lucky Dip for Wednesday’s triple rollover, some of that money is invested in the country’s elite sportsmen and women and turned them into champions.
Of course, it’s a cause for celebration. Most of us remember where we were when Mo Farah, Greg Rutherford and Jessica Ennis-Hill triumphed on Super Saturday. When Kelly Holmes, dogged by injury, won double in Athens. Or when the women’s hockey team did what Gareth Southgate’s England couldn’t and won a final on penalties watched by 10 million on the BBC.
Denise Lewis is another. Her life changed when, after winning bronze in Atlanta, she claimed Olympic gold in the heptathlon in Sydney.
‘It was life-changing,’ Lewis told The Mail on Sunday. ‘I was extremely proud. To come away with the medal and everything that ensued afterwards, people’s perceptions of me, the event that had been quiet in the background since Mary Peters, everyone was talking about heptathlon and that legacy that as continued through Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson and for women’s sport.’
Gold medals change lives, they forge memories and they create legends. And Lottery funding has been key to that.
We cannot, though, embrace the triumphs and the celebration of 100 gold medals, as we should, without also acknowledging what has been sacrificed, expended and exploited to get there. One hundred gold medals — but at what cost?
Adam Peaty with one of the gold medals, which he won in 2016 for the Men’s 100m breaststroke
The short answer is about £1.26billion. That’s how much has been divvied out by UK Sport, according to their website, to various summer and winter Olympic sports since Atlanta. About £12.5m for every gold. In other words, a lot of scratch cards.
And that’s without taking into account the £260m spent on summer and winter Paralympics.
Without it, we would never have seen such a change. Yet the true cost of GB’s success is beyond the purse. It’s the obsession and the culture of winning at all costs. The allegations of abuse, disregard for athlete welfare and blurring the ethical line between marginal gains and enhancing performance beyond what is reasonable.
Over the past year, scores of gymnasts have come forward to reveal the horrors they suffered at the hands of their coaches amid a ‘culture of fear’. Locked in cupboards, beaten with sticks, told they were fat.
The Mail on Sunday revealed last year how Olympians ahead of London 2012 were forced to sign waivers and used as guinea pigs to test performance-enhancing ketone supplements.
This paper also told how UK Anti-Doping were placed under investigation for allowing British Cycling to conduct their own probe when one of their cyclists tested positive for a banned substance. Or the coaches who threatened to quit if Mo Farah was forced to end his relationship with disgraced coach Alberto Salazar, now serving a four-year doping ban.
All of this comes from the win-at-all-costs mentality. Cath Bishop, the former world champion rower and Olympic silver medalist, believes the obsession with the number has made us disregard what is important.
Most of us remember where we were when Kelly Holmes, dogged by injury, won double in Athens
‘If we only count the quantity of medals, we disregard the ‘quality’ of those medals – how they were won, the experience of the athlete (and coach) and the story they tell when they step off the podium,’ Bishop, author of The Long Win: The Search for a Better Way to Succeed, told The Mail on Sunday.
‘We have seen a number of Olympic and Paralympic sports reviewed with serious findings around toxic environments and ‘cultures of fear’. This does nothing to enable current athletes to thrive, potentially cuts short their sporting careers and certainly won’t inspire the next generation or impress the British public when they tell their stories.
‘There is also that cost that’s harder to see, that we are missing out on more inspirational stories, of athletes who might want to contribute further to sport later in life, of the bigger impact that sport could have if we told stories beyond medals. Medals are great to celebrate, but I’m less interested in how many we’ve won and more in the stories behind them.’
Back in 2004, UK Sport made their position as clear as it could possibly be. ‘The impact of funding will be diluted if too many athletes are supported,’ the body said. ‘It is a tough, no compromise approach that will strengthen the best, support the developing and provoke change in the underperforming. Future funding of sports will take account of both past performances, which demonstrate whether the sport has a winning formula, and future potential.’
No compromise: no medals, no money. When that is the only barometer of success, lines get crossed.
Denise Lewis says winning gold in the heptathlon in Sydney in 2000 changed her life
‘I do care about more than medals but I think you have to understand that winning medals and establishing role models is a key part in what we might call a wholistic sports system,’ said Robertson.
‘But that doesn’t mean to say that you should allow some of the things that have emerged over the past year or so: the bullying allegations and all the rest. That is wrong. It’s as simple as that. It is sometimes a fine line but no good coach should cross the line into bullying. You don’t need to do that to drive medals.’
Katherine Grainger, Bishop’s former rowing partner and now head of UK Sport, has insisted that there will no longer be a win-at-all-costs view to success and funding.
So, what is the target? UK Sport expects between 45-70 medals in Tokyo. ‘I would like to see us in the top five over a 10-Games cycle,’ said Robertson. ‘That establishes our credentials as one of the leading Olympic nations around the world, which is where I want us to be. Not only that but also using Olympic spirt as something as a nation we are proud of and are really good at.’
This is where Team GB find themselves in Tokyo and beyond. What is the legacy they want to leave behind for those who will follow? To win, no matter the cost, or to inspire. It is possible, perhaps, to do both.
Whether it’s Jones or Peaty up first, now is the chance to shape that legacy.
Cath Bishop says the obsession with the number of medals disregards the ‘quality’ of them