For a nation that prides itself on the invention and supposed dominance of so many sports, until recently, Britain has thoroughly underperformed at the Summer Olympic Games. Great Britain’s consistent excellence at the last few Olympics has in fact been a story of dramatic change in the last 25 years; from elation with any sort of medal in 1996 to dejection with silver medals in 2021. Here’s how Great Britain’s Olympic team transitioned from being a “laughingstock” to a national pride.
As previously acknowledged, this study will be looking at Britain’s journey from zero to hero over the past 25 years, beginning at the Atlanta Olympic Games back in 1996. Despite the extortionate investments that the likes of Russia, China, and the US had been putting into their Olympic teams for years, Great Britain never made the same investments however, it wasn’t until the 1996 Atlanta Games that the consequences of the sheer financial neglect of Team GB athletes were finally recognized.
Atlanta has become known as an Olympics of huge disappointment for Great Britain. Many athletes underperformed including British sprinter and the reigning 100m Champion, Linford Christie, who’s hopes were dashed after a double false start caused him to be disqualified in his last ever Olympic Games, a baton drop by Christie’s future mentee, Darren Campbell, in the 4x100m Men’s Final and World Record Triple Jump Holder, Jonathan Edwards, succumbing to a silver medal, despite the nationwide assumption that he would win gold.
With such a frenzy of underperforming athletes, only one conclusion could be taken away from Atlanta; change was absolutely necessary to prevent another embarrassment on an international stage. Britain came home with just 15 medals and only one gold, leaving them 36th in the medal table. Team GB’s minimal funding had finally been exposed and its athletes brutally caught in the crosshairs.
Ironically, the source of financial change that has led to the position we find ourselves in today was actually set up in 1994, prior to the 1996 Games but no one knew it yet. John Major’s introduction of the national lottery in 1994 was the cause of a massive influx in sporting investments with the lottery’s popularity skyrocketing after Major pledged millions of the lottery’s income to GB sport. This decision cannot be overstated; Team GB would finally transition into professionalism, beginning the journey to today’s high-quality status-quo.
In the eyes of critics, the 2000 Sydney Olympics was the first test run of the new Olympic strategy. Those within the sporting circles knew that they had to keep their expectations in check; they had only been professional a mere three years. However, there needn’t be any fear with Team GB, compared to previous years, excelling. As the likes of Denise Lewis and Jonathan Edwards catapulted themselves into national stardom, the gold medal barrier came crashing down for athletes in previously neglected sports with Chris Hoy describing Jason Queally’s gold medal as a eureka moment.
The difference three years of funding made was drastic; £60,000,000 had driven Team GB to 10th in the medal table whilst the athletes had captured the imagination of the public, press and politicians. Sydney definitively served as a sign of things to come, and obliged parliament to invest further. Team GB would go into Athens with up to £300,000,000 in funding as a policy of financial doping was born.
Another watershed moment was prompted post-Sydney: Britain’s £28,000,000 bid for London 2012. British Sport’s then Chief Executive, Simon Clegg, believed that “nothing would move sport higher or more quickly up both the political, and most importantly social agendas, as staging the Olympic games” in London. To bid for the Olympics was brave and required Team GB’s athletes to perform in Athens in order to justify the huge cost of hosting the world’s biggest sporting event. All things considered, the 10th place finish in the medal table at Athens was a huge success but, after the meteoric rise in Sydney and well-published monetary injection; Athens felt like an anti-climax. Nonetheless, given the sorry state Team GB was in just eight years earlier and the efforts already put into bidding for 2012, any debate over funding was unarguably nullified. Team GB had the blinkers on.
After Athens, Great Britain was on the back straight in the race to Olympic success but was forced into acceleration after the bid for 2012 was won in 2005. After the initial stages of euphoria had passed, the realisation of the task ahead dawned. Not only did they have to keep funding athletes, they had to invest the billions of pounds required to host a successful games that would be globally critiqued.
Hence, a new approach to funding was devised. GB Sport pledged a ‘no-compromise’ approach to winning medals. This would mean that sports with supposed lower chances of winning medals such as gymnastics would be savagely cut and efforts would be focused on events that could guarantee success. As a result, heading into the Beijing Olympics, pressure upon athletes was at an all-time high as GB Sport frantically went about preparing for London in the most cost-efficient way possible. Heaps of pressure was put upon athletes in well-funded sports such as cycling or diving. 14-year-old Tom Daley was thrown into the deep end with limited affinity for his situation, whilst cyclists such as Victoria Pendleton who were told that gold was a necessity were in a “suffocating” environment in which it was “difficult to thrive”.
One of the main things to realise is that Team GB’s Olympic success story is accredited to an adaptable strategy that had the humility to learn from mistakes. Whilst a massively impressive 4th place in the Beijing Olympic medal table vindicated the funding strategy, it also contained stories that suggested the need for change; something that Team GB was receptive to.
Louis Smith’s gymnastic bronze, despite reduced funding proved that ahead of London, Team GB needn’t be so closed minded to sports with a history of failure. Compounded with Britain’s surprise resurgence in the cycling after both sports had gone up to 100 years without a medal, GB Sport realised that to consistently run with the leading pack of Olympic superpowers, it would have to incrementally build the pool of talent. Hence, the pressure on the athletes with ‘no-compromise’ funding was reduced as Team GB’s medal table hopes didn’t hinge solely on them.
This new strategy would entail giving attention to niche sports and diversifying funding; a key component to Team GB’s modern Olympic success. As a result, ahead of London, GB Sport gave ancillary support for a large variety of sports resulting in Team GB coming away with medals across the board rather than all from one sport. Again, this strategy of varied funding was abundantly evident in Tokyo, where over £220,000,000 was split across 23 sports. This tactic triumphed as Team GB came home with medals from 25 different disciplines – more than any other country.
With sudden investment in niche sports, Team GB would need athletes with potential to compete in them after years of them previously being disregarded. This led to the creation of beneficiary programmes such as ‘Discover your Gold’ or ‘Sporting Giants’; free public programmes used to source talent such as Helen Glover or Lizzy Yarnold.
The journey that started on such weak foundations in 1996 is one of sports greatest and most underrated success stories. Figures as high as 9,000,000,000 have been mentioned regarding the Olympic effort but, the investment has certainly been worthwhile as the Olympians return home as national pride at a time when such sentiment is limited. As said by former GB Sport Chair, Sue Campbell; “Sport is so powerful, it has the power to change things, to bring communities together, to be excited about our country, to make people feel proud and make their dreams come true. Those are real things. There is no value to be put on that.”