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Team GB: the winning habit

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Team GB: the winning habit
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06/07/2012

The summer of 1996 was turning into a painful one for British sport. On the football pitch, Euro ‘96 had ended in English heartbreak at the hands of the merciless Germans.

In cricket, Michael Atherton’s team were getting smacked around the nation’s grounds by Pakistan. But never mind, we consoled ourselves – there was always the Olympics.

Ah yes, the Atlanta Olympic Games. Memorable for Muhammad Ali’s emotional lighting of the Olympic Torch during the opening ceremony, the sobering shock of a terrorist attack on the Centennial Olympic Park and ultimately – in Great Britain, at least – for abject failure.

Linford Christie (picture 1) was disqualified for two false starts (skip to 5.15 here for his first; 8.30 for his second), and Sally Gunnell (picture 2) pulled up injured defending her 400m hurdles title.

The numbers are damning. A solitary gold (won by a man you’ll hear more from shortly, Steve Redgrave, with Matthew Pinsent) was accompanied by eight silver and six bronze medals, leaving Britain down in 36th place in the final medal table. Among the nations looking down on us were Ireland, Algeria and that famed titan of international sport, North Korea.

“I have a message for [Prime Minister] John Major,” said then BOA chief Dick Palmer. “We need more money.” And he wasn't alone. Pinsent called the way the Olympic team was sponsored “a disgrace”, saying: “It is vital that the people we send have got everything – not just for two weeks. We need funding for 600 people in the team for a year or two years back.”

BEIJING BOOM
Fast-forward 12 years and Team GB were flying. By the end of the Beijing Games in 2008, as Boris Johnson emerged to add his own sprinkle of stardust (and buffoonery) to the closing ceremony, Britain had amassed an astounding 19 gold medals to put the memory of 1996 far behind them.

Beijing's grand total of 47 medals was the most Team GB had won since the first London Olympics in 1908, when Britain's 146 medals took them to the top of the medal table. The fact that it was only the Brits who showed up for the tennis tournament, and that the tug of war was contested by three British teams out of a field of just five, might have had a little something to do with that grand haul, mind.

TALKING ’BOUT A REVOLUTION
How, then, have Britain's Olympians been transformed from the almost comedic failures of Atlanta into the sporting superheroes set to storm Stratford in three weeks' time? Sport turned to three wise men with the experience, knowledge and knowhow to reveal all.

Peter Keen is the man who coached Chris Boardman to Britain's first Olympic cycling gold medal in 72 years, and set up the all conquering high-performance cycling programme based at the Manchester Velodrome. Now at UK Sport, where he became director of performance in 2009, Keen has played a major role in transforming Britain's elite sporting performance.

You probably know Steve Redgrave already, considering he's one of Britain's greatest ever Olympians, with five gold medals from five Olympics dating back to the Los Angeles Games of 1984.

Finally, there's Dave Brailsford, who has taken over where Keen left off at British Cycling. He oversaw a haul of seven gold medals on the track at the Beijing Olympics and set up Britain's first professional road-racing outfit, Team Sky.

All three are in agreement on one thing, and it's proof that Pinsent and Palmer were spot on in their demands for more cash. Brailsford calls National Lottery funding “the biggest single step-change that's ever happened to sport in this country”, while Keen claims it created an “absolute revolution” in most sports.

Introduced in 1994, it wasn't until 1998 that athletes started to reap the rewards of lottery funding, after restrictions on handing grants to individuals were lifted. So while the shocker in Atlanta was followed four years later by Britain's climb to 10th in the medal table at the Sydney Games of 2000 (where Denise Lewis, in picture 3, won heptathlon gold), Keen says you have to look beyond even then for Team GB's turning point.

“Most of the start-up programmes had only interim funding in 1998, so Sydney was a product of two years of new investment,“ he explains. “It was an interesting time; a number of athletes were coming towards the end of their careers and had struggled on – signing on the dole, or whatever. And then, with this pulse of funding, they really did pick up. If you look at who won in Sydney, quite a lot of them were mature athletes who got a real lift. But then the truth is that we flatlined for four years.”

THE TIPPING POINT
Great Britain's 10th place in Sydney was repeated in Athens four years later, although the team picked up two fewer golds than the 11 collected in Australia. The Greek Games came just two years after Keen made a policy change he calls “the real tipping point” in Team GB's transformation.

“At the time, it was incredibly painful,” he says. “But looking back at it now, it was probably critical. At the beginning of the lottery era [when Keen was still at British Cycling], I inherited an expectation that a lot of cyclists were going to get funding – and anyone who was national level did get something when it first started.

“But towards the end of the 2002 season, I devised a process that basically weeded out all the people who it wasn't right for. It was really unpleasant at the time, but from that point on it flew – it absolutely flew. The reality of winning in high-performance sport is not only that very few people do it, but that very few people really want to do it and understand what the journey is going to be.

“Being that selective about who it [funding] is right for makes you very unpopular with your board, the wider community in your sport and, indeed, anyone who thought they were good enough but you say no to.

But the successful sports have worked out how you say no to most people and yes to a few – cycling nailed it from 2002 onwards. Some sports are probably still working towards the understanding that you have to do it properly, which means going a lot deeper and a lot harder than most people are willing to do.”

SUCCESS v POTENTIAL
Having competed at the very top level from the 1980s until his retirement after winning a fifth gold in Sydney, Redgrave has seen first hand the difference that lottery funding can make to an athlete. He agrees it has had a “huge effect”, but he has concerns.

As one of Britain's most successful Olympic sports in terms of medals won, rowing is handed one of the lottery's biggest pots of money (sailing, and Ben Ainslie, in picture 4, has also been transformed by lottery funding), while other sports that have struggled to make an impact get the smaller end of the wedge.

“From that point of view I don't agree with our system of funding,” says Redgrave. “I don’t think we should be funding purely on Olympic performance, especially after these Games, because there’ll be a lot of athletes retiring. It's about potential.

"Because rowing has been successful, we've been funded extremely well over the years, which means we've been able to send our under-23 team on part of the training camps the Olympic squads go on. They'll be the mainstay of our Olympic team in four years, and they already know what's expected of them when they reach the top of their sport.

“That's what we need to do in other sports. Four years ago, taekwondo won one medal, so they were able to keep their funding at just the same level.

"At that time, we had three people who had the chance to possibly win gold this year – but they weren't really funded enough to be able to move on to that sort of level. You have to be able to see the potential and there has to be a balance. Yes, you need to reward sports that are consistent performers – but that doesn't mean you ignore the ones that aren't.

"At the moment, we're saying because the sport hasn't done very well, we're not going to fund them. We need to fund them. We can't be so single-minded.”

IS CASH KING?
As Keen says, being selective with funding wins few friends. But Brailsford points out that cash is only one part of the puzzle when it comes to creating champions. “Sport isn’t about putting money in a slot machine, pulling a lever and getting success out the bottom,“ he says. “It's what goes on in the middle. There's plenty of people who have a lot of money in sport and not been successful – it's not a panacea.”

That crucial middle bit is about supporting and developing performance, according to Brailsford. In other words: coaching. And life for the sports coach in Britain is unrecognisable now from the days when Keen ploughed a lone furrow with Boardman.

“It actually pains me to say that all the hands-on coaching I ever did, I never did for a paycheque,” Keen explains. “It was always alongside other jobs. All that coaching was done outside of what was technically my day job [teaching]. It feels really amateur looking back on it.”

And Brailsford agrees. “You don't have to go back too far to a time when sport science graduates would come out of university with a degree and go: 'Right, where's my career? I can't see a pathway,'” he says. “You'd say 'I'm a coach' and it'd be 'oh, you volunteer down the local football club?' It just didn't exist. But now you can genuinely say this is a profession, like in America, where being a coach is considered a good job. I think that's a profound thing in Britain that's quietly working away. The more that industry becomes recognised and starts to have a standing in society, the more sport will benefit.”

FAST CARS AND PHYSIOLOGY
One of Keen's less taxing roles at UK Sport has been to oversee the work undertaken by Dr Scott Drawer's research and innovation team. “They've done a great job of tapping into what the UK's actually still really good at in terms of technology and academic research,” says Keen.

“They've been looking at everything from equipment development to training programmes, investigating the underlying knowledge in terms of biomechanics and physiology, and tracking of training through IT systems. It's a whole raft of things that have led us into different businesses, engineering companies, Formula 1, academia…”

The English Institute of Sport (whose core operating costs are covered by UK Sport) has played a critical role in applying all the above, as you'll find in our GB Boxing feature later in the app. And it's widely believed that, in terms of research and innovation, Britain is among the best in the world at developing new ways of improving sporting performance.

You need look no further than the Manchester Velodrome for proof of that. And it is impossible to discuss the changing fortunes of Team GB without focusing on cycling – a sport that has perhaps made the biggest Olympic performance leap of all. “I would agree with that, because I'll lay claim to having started it all,” laughs Keen. “Certainly the results in Beijing were off the scale – absolutely extraordinary.

“But every sport's different in terms of the gap to the podium they had to bridge from where they were, or the complexity and depth of competition that has to be overcome to get there. There's no doubt cycling has been a trailblazer, and that's so important in terms of the simplest of messages: it can be done.

“If you look back to the late 1990s, it wasn't that we didn't have some world-class cyclists – we had a few – but they were very much individual efforts. There was nothing systematic happening there. Whereas with Jason Kenny in Beijing, you'd have to argue he was a complete product of the opportunity that now exists [at the High Performance Cycling Programme, based at the Manchester Velodrome].

“From the moment he was identified in a track race as promising, to the way he was then assessed, coached and managed from promising young junior through multiple junior world titles, straight into his first Olympics, winning two medals, one of them gold... well, the system that's now in place was able to do that for him. For me, that's so much more powerful than just an individual story of progression and excellence, because it's there for others.”

LEARNING TO LOVE SUCCESS
The way Keen describes the conveyor belt of success running through the Manchester Velodrome all sounds quite un-British. We're a nation that typically makes valiant efforts and brave stands before ultimately falling short. Not any more, says Redgrave.

“I think it dates back to our embarrassment at having an empire,“ he reflects. “It got to the stage when actually we wanted to be known as being good competitors – as a nation that tried hard but ended up gallant losers instead of triumphant winners.

“But, in recent years, I think our attitudes have changed. We can be still be gallant and about fair play, but there isn't that embarrassment about being winners. That's important for our country, and sport is a leading light at showing that and at leading the way for business and industry. We can be successful and a big player within world society, and sport gives us the opportunity to do that.”

Redgrave makes no secret of his view that the rowing team heading to London 2012 is “probably the best we've ever sent to an Olympic Games”. It's excellently timed, if so, with a home Games at which to impress. But Redgrave says it's down to more than just the motivation that offers. “Rowing has won gold medals at every Games since 1984, and that builds strength,” he says. “It gives us a profile as well, so it draws more people into the sport.

“It's about belief, too. When I first started, it was about 'I can be part of the team, I could be selected to compete for Great Britain'. Now, every athlete thinks they can win a medal because it's easy to look back at Games before and athletes before and see that they win medals.”

CREATING CHRIS HOYS
UK Sport remains tight-lipped over medal targets in London, sticking firmly to a mantra of 'more medals from more sports' even while the post-Beijing euphoria raged. “Beijing was spectacular,” admits Keen. “But if you take the cycling result out of it, it's a steadier improvement than fourth place suggests – that was, by any measure, an extraordinary leap.

If you put in what you might call a more normal cycling performance, it looks a much steadier growth – and that was the growth we'd have been predicting.

“I'm in no doubt that winning at the highest level in sport is a long game. It takes eight to 10 years for really promising people to grow into another Chris Hoy (picture 5), who can win when pressure is massive and expectation is huge. It's not just the conditioning and the skill – it's maturity, self-knowledge, and the robustness that comes with perfecting your craft.

“It's no different to music or the other performing arts, in which as a nation we have wonderful institutions where, if you're really special, there is a pathway you can follow that's resourced and will maximise your chance at being world-class. Sport should be the same. I still think we're building that – it's not solid yet. Sport doesn't work like that here.”

Before Keen can fully address that task, he must await the outcome of a Games at which Team GB has given itself an almost impossible act to follow.

“Did Beijing make my life more difficult?" he asks. “No, because, if you understand what it takes to win in high-performance sport and how fragile that can be, then you never rely on it. You know you're always going to have to work harder and be more innovative the next time. I would hope the majority of athletes who are even moderately honest would admit that, within hours of winning, they've already forgotten it and are thinking about the next one. So, Beijing: fantastic, done, dusted. Now boom, off we go.”

And the same goes for losing. So, 1996 and all that? Ancient history.

Sarah Shephard @sarahsportmag

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