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In Good Conscience

Britain's well-funded Olympic gold rush is gilt by association

With every respect to your national hero Joseph Schooling, the Brits are waking up almost every day to gold, silver and bronze.

I'm not going to pour cold water over someone who, through sheer dedication, effort and deep-down courage beats his boyhood hero, the way that Schooling beat Michael Phelps.

Nor should anyone underestimate the leap of faith it takes to be the first, the one and only Olympic champion born in Singapore.

However, given that these Games mostly happen in the dead of night so far as Britain is concerned, can you imagine the British breakfasting on so many medals that they almost get indigestion?

I can't, and I'm a Brit.


Britain’s Jason Kenny won three cycling gold medals in Rio and now has a total of six Olympic golds, sharing the all-time British record with Chris Hoy. PHOTO: REUTERS

Yesterday was a typical morning. A pair of brothers from Yorkshire, Alistair and Jonny Brownlee, embraced on the track after finishing first and second in the triathlon - the exhausting swimming, cycling and running event.

Jade Jones, a Welsh woman who is as fierce in taekwondo as she is demure off the mat, retained the gold medal she won as a teenager in London in 2012.

Hannah Mills and Saskia Clark sailed away with their event on Guanabara Bay.

And the medals kept on coming, including a bronze in badminton, which had never been much of a British forte until now.

Sometimes, the story reflects the immigrant population in England. Mo Farah is confirming his reputation as one of the greatest distance runners of all time, while wearing the GB vest he is entitled to as a Londoner.

An adopted Londoner. He was born in Mogadishu, and followed his father, an IT consultant working in England, when Mo was eight. But Mo's twin brother Hassan, who once literally ate off the same plate, is still eking out an existence in Somalia.

They were separated, as so many were, by the civil war. And Mo Farah, who speaks and acts like a Londoner, is again outstanding at these Games that welcomed 10 refugees from conflicts in Syria and South Sudan.

The sheer effort to get funding is such a top-down process that it discourages people from stepping onto the ladder lower down.

He is now a privileged Brit, a recipient of funding and application that truly makes this the golden age of British sport.

In statistics alone, this is an about-turn. Britain is, pro rata, the success nation of the Olympics.

The medals table has the United States top, with Britain and China dicing for second.

The population counts are: 1.3 billion for China, 316 million for the US, and 64 million for Britain.

Now, as with all things in life, it is what you do with the numbers, and how you apply your skills that matter.

It seems only a few Olympic cycles ago that the Aussies taunted the Brits and everyone else with comparison charts showing that their boys and girls were winning more medals per head of population than any other.

It was some time previously that the German Democratic Republic, the Communist side of Germany behind the Berlin Wall, was providing state-sponsored winners (and dopers) in a way that Russia is now accused of emulating.

Do I suggest that Britain is following that path? Of course not. It is among the leaders of attempts to blow the whistle on drug violations.

But in terms of putting state sponsorship behind Olympic pride, Britain is right up there. The bulk of the money behind the Olympic prowess is the £274 million (S$482 million) that comes from the National Lottery.

Not surprisingly, the Australian Sports Commission (ASC) is also lobbying for a national lottery. The ASC has a funding programme called Winning Edge, which distributed A$134 million (S$137 million) in the last financial year - less than one-third the British sum.

So where does Britain gain an edge (and why has Australia slipped to "only" seven golds so far in Rio)?

"If I had the blueprint, I'd be using it," said Australia's cycling chief Kevin Tabotta in the great debate on England cleaning out cycling medals in Brazil just as it had in London and even Beijing.

Cycling provokes envious talk. Australian, German and French competitors have muttered about the "strange" achievement of the Brits peaking only at the Olympics and not much in between.

Antoine Vayer, a former cycling competitor and coach, tweets using the term "£ycling" to emphasise the spending power of Brits.

Well, it's true that UK Sport, the purse holder of the National Lottery money, generously awards cycling a £30 million budget for the Olympic programme.

It is just as true that the UK Sport decision makers reward success and ruthlessly snub failure. The people who decide the manner of distribution no longer pretend that all sports are equal.

Their criterion is hard-nosed business. If you win, or look like winning, you get a share of the money. If UK Sport can't see your sport as having podium potential, you get nothing.

Four sports - basketball, handball, wrestling and table tennis - were axed from the Lottery handout for this four-year cycle. The paymasters call this "investing" in sports, by which they mean investing in medals.

This being 2016, the data defines the weeding-out process. Sport UK uses Canadian digital company, CGI, for data by which allocations are made.

Cycling applies the science of aerospace to bikes, and micro-manages the input of coaches and psychologists combined with medical expertise that can predict which competitor should win what, where and when.

The nation is lapping it up.

However, if Brits are tops in the Olympic arenas, why are the numbers of people participating in sport falling in the country?

The answer might be that the sheer effort to get funding is such a top-down process that it discourages people from stepping onto the ladder lower down.

Incentivising the champions at the expense of the masses.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 20, 2016, with the headline 'Britain's well-funded Olympic gold rush is gilt by association'. Print Edition | Subscribe