Medals. Moments. And now more. That was the message emanating from Team GB chiefs after an extraordinary 16 days in Tokyo, during which Britain not only equalled their medal haul at London 2012 but forged into new and unexpected areas, including BMX, skateboarding, and weightlifting.
There were also performances of soul and glow, with athletes such as Jonny Brownlee and Tom Daley beaming as they climbed to the highest step of the podium after so many near misses. Familiar favourites such as Jason and Laura Kenny and Charlotte Dujardin ripened their legacy. And the sight of new working-class heroes such as Emily Campbell, thrusting 161kg above her head to win silver. White, black, rich, poor: all were represented. Never has Team GB looked more like Typical GB.
Such heartening performances also brought a temporary truce to a nation that seemingly lives in a semi-permanent state of agitation. The Olympics have a way of doing that. But usually the feelgood factor dissipates before the Team GB plane has even landed at Heathrow. Now come the hard bits. Ensuring that this changes and that the millions thrown at elite-level sport create a lasting legacy for the grassroots, too. Encouragingly that is something that the British Olympic Association chief executive, Andy Anson, and the UK Sport chair, Dame Katherine Grainger, appeared to recognise on Sunday evening.
“I think all of us would agree that the legacy from previous Olympic success is not necessarily translated into grassroots participation in the way that we would all want it to,” Anson admitted. “We’ve got to do a lot more. I’ve had several conversations with GB athletes. They want to help. They are actually passionate about driving participation. They believe it is part of their role. I think it’s incumbent on us.”
He added: “We’ve got to work with these athletes to help them influence people to participate in sports. We’re looking at turning our Team GB into a 24-7, 365-day brand using athletes to really interact and drive the health agenda. We’ve got to make it happen this time.” Amen to that.
The statistics around any sort of participation are particularly chilling. Around 22 million people in this country do less than 30 minutes of activity a week, when the recommendation is 30 minutes a day. It will take time, commitment and cash – things politicians are not always willing to give. But the success of Team GB over the past 25 years, since John Major introduced lottery funding, shows what can happen with will, skill and plenty of cash.
It seems almost quaint that Team GB were handed £59m for the Sydney Games in 2000 and £70m for Athens in 2004, given that the figures were soon supercharged by London winning the right to host the 2012 Olympics. For these Tokyo Olympics, UK Sport had £345m to distribute across different sports. For Paris 2024 it will be £352m.
These are big sums. But they will mean little if the next generation of Kennys, Muirs and Campbells don’t have facilities to cycle, run and lift, or the roads aren’t safe enough to cycle on. Sometimes, it is even more fundamental than that. As Professor Greg Whyte, a former Olympian puts it, the biggest challenge is often not getting people to do Couch to 5K, but merely Couch to the front door.
Crucially politicians appear to be on board. When asked last week whether the government would launch an education push to get more people active for an hour a day, the sports minister, Nigel Huddleston, suggested that Britain’s Olympic stars could carry that message more effectively.
“Sports personalities have always been fantastic at saying: ‘How can I help?’ And I think we need to take on that offer a bit more aggressively,” he said. “Because messages coming from them are going to be more effective than coming from the politicians. I’ll be knocking on their doors. We’ve got the momentum and a golden opportunity – we have to make sure activity levels are up.”
That challenge, however, can wait for a day or two. For now the BOA can rightly bask in Britain’s young team soaring to fourth in the table with 65 medals, including 22 golds, after their hard work and astute planning paid off.
Afterwards Team GB’s chef de mission, Mark England, cited a number of factors as helping – including the astute decision to book a preparation camp in Yokohama and keep hold of it when the Games could have been cancelled, and also conducting 20,000 PCR tests to ensure that every GB athlete in Japan made the starting line, in the midst of a pandemic.
Meanwhile the new management at UK Sport – who over the last three years have sought to improve the culture after a string of damaging allegations across multiple sports – will also be relieved. It shows that the carrot of a medal doesn’t need to be backed by a sharp stick, despite what some may think. As Grainger, a five-times Olympian, admitted: “Everyone felt pretty strongly that that didn’t need to be the way, and shouldn’t be the way.”
Now, though, she has a fresh challenge in mind. “Our athletes are incredible role models in society for sport and much wider,” she said. “Our next step is to make sure that this isn’t just ‘you see them once every four years, and then again four years later’.” The devil, as always, will be in the details.