British lottery funds major games success

Atlanta debacle led to policy switch but focus on excellence means many sports are left out

RIO DE JANEIRO • Four years ago, Britain amassed 65 medals - 29 of them gold - at the London Olympics, its finest showing since 1908, when it won a whopping 148 medals, coincidentally also while hosting the then-nascent modern Games.

The 2012 haul was duly celebrated, the culmination of Britain's steady improvement since its embarrassing 1996 Atlanta Games haul of just a single gold among 15 medals.

And this fortnight in Rio, it followed up on its superb showing in London with its best-ever overseas Olympics performance, surpassing its 47-medal showing at the 2008 Beijing Games with a 56-medal harvest (22 golds, 21 silvers and 13 bronzes) by the end of Thursday.

The latest British gold medallists were men's triathlon favourite Alistair Brownlee, sailors Hannah Mills and Saskia Clark in the 470 women's class, and taekwondo exponent Jade Jones, who retained her women's 57kg title.

The trio of golds kept Britain above China (20 golds) in the medal tally, and way ahead of its European rivals Germany (13), France and Italy (both eight). It trails only the United States, which has 100 medals so far (35 golds, 33 silvers and 32 bronzes).

Alistair Brownlee acknowledging the cheers from fans after retaining his triathlon title as his younger brother Jonathan approaches the finish line. Britain is in second place behind the US in the medal standings after Day 13. PHOTO: REUTERS

Many analysts have traced Britain's Olympic success back to the decision in 1997 by then-Prime Minister John Major to establish the National Lottery to bring much-needed funding to the British sporting scene, especially after its Atlanta Games debacle.

In almost every respect, the results have been transformational, reported BBC Online. It enabled elite sportsmen and women to train full time to the most exacting of standards, across a whole range of disciplines which had previously been the preserve of part-time amateurs.

This time around, UK Sport - which receives two-thirds of its funding from the National Lottery - has pledged almost £350 million (S$619 million) to Olympic and Paralympic sports between 2013 and 2017, up 11 per cent on the run-up to London 2012.

Those sports that have fuelled the rise in Britain's medal-table positions over the past eight years - athletics, boxing and cycling, for example - were rewarded with increased investment.

On the other hand, sports that failed to hit their 2012 medal target either had their funding reduced or cut altogether.


It's a very rational, cold approach. Medals have gone up. British elite sport is certainly booming. The returns of medals per pound is there.

BORJA GARCIA, senior lecturer in sports management and policy at Loughborough University, on UK Sport's channelling of funds towards sports with good medal chances, while cutting funds from those that fail to hit medal targets.

For instance, Britain's women's volleyball team rose more than 60 places in the rankings to reach the world's top 20 in the four years prior to London 2012, but all funding was withdrawn when they did not win a medal. This time around, Britain did not even send a volleyball team to Rio.

"It's a brutal regime, but it's as crude as it is effective," said Borja Garcia, a senior lecturer in sports management and policy at Loughborough University. "It's a very rational, cold approach. Medals have gone up. British elite sport is certainly booming. The returns of medals per pound is there."

Concurrently, a system honed by a generation of performance directors in the sports Britain has excelled in recent Games - Dave Brailsford in cycling, Dave Tanner in rowing, Stephen Park in sailing - has now spread to the rest of the British Olympic sports system.

Well-meaning application has long since been supplanted by scientific rigour. It is part of what the UK Sport performance director, Simon Timson, calls success by design, with all the sports looking to replicate what has worked for others.

  • 56

    Medals won by Britain at the Rio Games by the end of Thursday (22 golds, 21 silvers, 13 bronzes)


    Increase in funding pledged to Olympic and Paralympic sports between 2013 and 2017, as compared to what UK Sport handed out for London 2012.


    Gold medal won by Britain at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, a Games widely regarded as the country's sporting nadir which spurred the revival of the past decade.

This constant striving for excellence - present in great individuals such as Ben Ainslie, Steve Redgrave, Andy Murray, Kath Grainger and Jessica Ennis-Hill - has become contagious since Athens 2004.

Despite the success in the past decade, some critics have said that UK Sport's approach has gone too far and is damaging grassroots sport.

They have argued that focusing disproportionately on sports such as cycling, sailing and rowing has meant those such as basketball risk withering, because they were unable to demonstrate they could win a medal at either of the next two Olympics.

Said Garcia: "We can ask all the philosophical questions, which are valid. Why focus on specific sports? Why do we invest all this money in all those medals? Just to get the medals? To make Britain's name known around the world?"

In May, Sport England, which focuses on grassroots sport, unveiled a four-year strategy to target inactivity.

More than a quarter of the population is officially defined as inactive because they do less than 30 minutes of activity a week, including walking.

Said Sport England's chief executive Jennie Price: "Our main aim is making sure all young people get a positive experience when they try a sport and whatever they choose to do, come away with the good basic skills and having had a great time."

For now though, Britain is giddily riding its stellar Olympic showing in Rio, welcoming a new generation of sports stars even as it bade farewell to the likes of Rebecca Adlington and Victoria Pendleton in 2012.

Said Liz Nicholl, chief executive officer of UK Sport: "Our high performance system is the envy of the world, and continues to go from strength to strength.

"This milestone of reaching a record away Games is a historic achievement and we are confident the outstanding medal success of Rio 2016 will continue over the coming days."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 20, 2016, with the headline 'British lottery funds major games success'. Print Edition | Subscribe