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When Did Team GB Get Good At The Olympics?

This week the Tokyo 2020 Olympics would have been in full swing and we would have been enjoying the feats of athletic heroism and pure emotion the Olympic Games draw out of us.

Before the turn of the millennium, a British athlete being crowned champion was a fairly rare sight. Team GB’s haul of 37 medals at the 1984 Los Angeles games was a standout performance of recent decades, but 1996’s Atlanta games produced 1 gold out of 15 medals won. Britain finished 36th in the table. 20 years later, by the end of Rio 2016, GB accumulated 67 medals, 27 of which gold, placing them 2nd only to the USA.

So over 2 decades, Britain’s performance at the Olympics has transformed from relatively underwhelming, to a gold-producing machine, carrying new expectations of what constitutes a successful Games. How did this happen? The main answer is an increase in funding, the majority of which coming from the National Lottery. A portion of the millions raised from people playing the Lottery goes towards UK Sport, where coaches, equipment and facilities are all able to be provided for training athletes. Decisions as to which sports programs receive funding are made in 4-year cycles, and the more successful a program is, the more secure it is in its funding.

46 medals have been achieved by our Olympic cyclists since 1997, half of which are golds won solely across the last 3 Olympic Games

Financial investment correlates with success. Lottery funding for UK Sport began the year after Atlanta, in 1997, and its impact is unquestionable. 20 sport disciplines are receiving funding from UK Sport for Tokyo. Team GB’s most prolific sports, rowing and cycling, are receiving £30.5m and £29.6m respectively. 46 medals have been achieved by our Olympic cyclists since 1997, half of which are golds won solely across the last 3 Olympic Games. Rowing has won 27 Olympic medals since 1997, 12 being gold. Badminton and karate are receiving the lowest amounts of funding for Tokyo, with £630,000 and £68,750, respectively. Badminton has won 3 medals since the introduction of lottery funding, and karate with none.

Lottery funding has provided a boost to sports where we historically had little success. British gymnastics has been on an upsurge with 12 medals won since 1997, which include a peak haul of 7 medals from Rio and Max Whitlock leaving as a double Olympic champion. Similarly, in swimming 14 medals have been won across the last 5 Olympic Games, with Rebecca Adlington’s golden double (2008) and Adam Peaty’s success (2016) as notable highlights. The improvement in both these sports aligns with a steady increase in funding.

For a country so comparably small, we have no place sitting so high

Everyone remembers where they were for that ‘Super Saturday’ in 2012, and we have become accustomed to seeing Team GB sit behind China and the USA in the medal tables. Arguably, for a country so comparably small, we have no place sitting so high. Yet, for a nation of sports lovers, the pride of Olympic success is undeniable. Team GB has improved because of its commitment to doing so. Our Olympic success has rapidly broadened with the support of committed, thoughtful funding.

These achievements have heightened the profiles of a multitude of sports and their stars, creating new heroes in the public conscience and inspiring new generations of athletes for the future. If commitment to supporting our sporting programs continues in this manner, then we have a lot to look forward to in Tokyo and beyond.

Rachel Roberts

Featured image used courtesy of Dansk Sejlunion via FlickrNo changes were made to this image. Image use license here.

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