If you had not just seen Duncan Scott do it, you could never have guessed what he had achieved. His silver in the men’s 4x100m medley relay made him the first British athlete ever to win four medals at one Olympic Games, and the most successful British swimmer in Olympic history, on the most successful British swimming team in Olympic history. He and the team have broken records that have stood since the London Olympics of 1908. “It’s probably not properly settled in,” was just about all Scott, 24, had to say about it in the minutes after his last race. “It’s not really hit me what’s happened.”
Happily, his friend and relay teammate Adam Peaty, who has now won five Olympic medals himself, was there to help. “I don’t think he understands,” Peaty said. “He’s just an incredible athlete, and very inspiring. I hope he gets the respect and recognition he deserves back home. I hope all this British swimming team, which is the best in history, do. We’re third in the medal table in swimming alone in the Olympics. No one thought we could be there after London 2012.”
In those Games, they won a silver and two bronzes. This week they won four golds, three silvers and one bronze.
Scott won one gold and three silvers himself, to go with the two silvers he won in Rio in 2016. If anything, he seemed a little disappointed by it, which tells you plenty in itself. He wanted to win four golds this week, not one. He seemed entirely unaffected by the success he had achieved. Maybe it was that he has been so busy he has not had the chance to think about it, maybe he was so very tired after swimming 10 races in eight days, maybe he really has no idea about the ways in which his life has just changed. More likely it is just a reflection of who he is.
Scott comes across as a modest and unassuming kid from Glasgow, who is more interested in winning than he is in any of the business that comes with it. He was distinctly uninterested in all the hoopla, the endless rounds of press and TV interviews. In fact he actively avoided giving them for most of the week.
“Each race I’ve tried to park when it’s done so I can look forward to the next one,” he said. “It was important I didn’t bring in any disappointment or get too excited about what’s happened.” All he really wanted to do was give credit to his teammates for helping him win those medals in the relays.
Scott is about to find out what it’s like to be in the limelight, just as Peaty did after Rio. Peaty has grown comfortable in it since. He has become the leader of this team and he wanted to use this moment to make a serious point about grassroots sport in the UK. Like all these swimmers, he came up through the British club system, and he knows how much those same clubs have struggled in the last 18 months while leisure centres have been shut during lockdown.
“Sport needs money, everyone knows that,” Peaty said. “Right now we need more investment than ever, to secure the next generation, especially in swimming, where you’ve got swimming clubs who are having to run raffles to do their fundraising.
“From my personal point of view I would ask if the government, or another body, should be stepping in to fund them. There’s going to be a lot of clubs closing down, and without the clubs, without the leisure centres, you can’t do this sport. So should we be doing that for the next generation of potential gold medal winners? That’s an open question, from me to the people who provide the money.”
No doubt there will be plenty of politicians and administrators who will be eager to claim a share of this team’s success. Let’s see how many are willing to give them the support they are asking for, too.