Team GB Track & Field's Greg Rutherford
I rarely watch sports on telly – unless The Great British Bake Off counts. But every four years I like to see how many more medals Michael Phelps can fit around his neck, or try and figure out how the gymnasts can do what they do on a plank of wood the width of my shoes.
Topping my list of most amazing Olympic feats this year though wasn’t seeing Phelps win his 23rd gold, or wondering if Simone Biles might actually leap through my TV screen, or even my learning that one of the two winners in the sailing event was a survivor of lung cancer and just a year ago had had part of one lung surgically removed. Instead, the sight that made my jaw drop the most was seeing Team Great Britain place second in the final result medal table. The little island country, with a population of just 65 million, pushed the behemoth China, with its 1.3 billion people, into third place.
Like a posse of pirates, Team GB arrived back in London – the main winners flying in on a customized airplane with "victoRIOus" written on the side – with a haul of gold, silver and bronze. A total of 67 medals in all. It was their biggest success in 108 years; 27 golds, 23 silvers and 17 bronzes. A record breaking accomplishment. No other host nation has ever won more medals at the following Olympic Games. Amazing when you consider that 20 years ago, in the Atlanta Olympics, GB came in 36th place, winning just one gold, eight silvers and six bronzes.
So what changed? How did Great Britain evolve into the little country that could? Money. Or maybe the lack of, which fueled the desires of millions of Britons to become overnight millionaires with the introduction of the National Lottery in 1994. When the then flailing government at the time, led by Prime Minister John Major, made the decision to allocate a significant portion of the monies taken in by the sale of Lottery tickets to fund "elite Olympic sport", it set in motion what the BBC’s chief sports writer Tom Fordyce calls “a funding spree unprecedented in British sport.”
Before the Atlanta Games, UK Sport, the government body that funds and manages Olympic sport, spent £5,000,000 per year. By the Sydney Olympics in 2000, their spending had increased to £54,000,000. Team GB achieved 10th place on the medal table that year. They rose to third place, with 64 medals, in 2012, with the total spending reaching £264,000,000. During the subsequent four years leading to Rio, that figure increased to almost £350,000,000.
Just how and to whom it goes has been well documented.
Gymnastics which received no funding at all before Atlanta, was allocated £5.9 million for Sydney and £14.6 million for Rio, where Team GB secured two gymnastics golds, plus a silver and a bronze. Swimmer Adam Peaty who once relied on family and friends to fund his travel and training costs, was awarded a £15,000 grant, which not only helped pay for his travel, but more importantly enabled his coach to attend an elite coaching program. It paid off, when this summer Peaty became the first British male to win a gold medal in swimming in 28 years.
Team GB cyclists leading the pack
Cycling receives one of the largest amounts of funding – for this year’s games it was £30.2 million. From their bikes, which are specially – and secretly – designed by a team headed up by a former Formula One Team principal and tested in a wind tunnel at Southampton University, to the aerodynamic skinsuits the riders wear, the British cyclists are the envy of their peers. They are also some of the most celebrated sportsmen in Britain. This year, all 14 of Team GB’s Olympic track cyclists returned from Rio with at least one medal.
It’s not just the equipment and coaching where the money goes. Great Britain’s women’s hockey players credit their sports psychologist with helping them prepare mentally for the Rio Olympics. Every Thursday for a year, the players would be “put into an extremely fatigued state”, then asked “to think very hard at the same time”. The team went onto win a gold on a penalty shootout, against the favorites from The Netherlands, who missed all four of their attempts.
Team GB Diver Tom Daley
Despite the fact that the money spent on bringing home the gold “costs each individual Briton just £1.09 per year in public funding”, there are, of course, critics who think the money could be better spent. My soon to be 80-year-old parents aren’t among them. Sometimes they’d stay up until 3am “supporting our team”. Often they’d call me. “We won another gold”, mum would say. They might not have been calling me from Rio, but as purchasers of a weekly National Lottery ticket for the last 22 years, they – and millions like them - were as much a part of Team GB as any of Britain’s sporting elite.
This year to thank the players of the National Lottery games for the support they’ve given the athletes, there was an additional 27 (one for each gold medal) one million pound prizes in the August 27th drawing. My parents didn’t get the Golden Ticket, but never mind. There’s always Tokyo!