When Team GB beat China to second place in the Rio 2016 Olympic medal table it was the final step in a long march from 36th in 1996.
The first nation to increase an already impressive tally at the Summer Games immediately after one they hosted, their best ‘away’ Games and second in the Paralympic medal table, too – Rio rocked for Britain’s best and they were fêted at a two-day national party in October.
What has happened since, however, feels like a cultural revolution.
Questions about what those medals cost, financially and individually, had already begun before the team set off for Brazil but by winter it was the only conversation in British elite sport.
Bullying and discrimination allegations surfaced at two of Britain’s bankers, cycling and rowing; the funding decisions for Tokyo 2020 left behind even more sawn-off dreams than usual; and alarming tales began to emerge from sports which had previously provided heart-warming ripostes to football’s financial excesses or state-sponsored doping.
What united all of these stories was a sense Team GB, its National Lottery-funded benefactor UK Sport and its seemingly straightforward ‘no compromise’ approach to picking winners needed a reboot.
Sure, some of this was simply a case of British sport becoming a victim of its own success.
Team GB won medals in six sports in Atlanta, and they were all the obvious ones. In Rio, it was 19, with a similar story for the Paralympics. There is only so much lottery lolly to spread around and that is before we consider an improved showing – and therefore rising expectations – at the Winter Games as well.
But it is more than just a case of finite resources and tough choices.
Just like Chinese whispers, what had worked wonders in the years immediately after 1996 had, in some places, morphed into something many Britons would not want for themselves in their own careers or for their children.
The set text for this is the independent report into those claims about British Cycling’s elite set-up. 14 months in the making and based on contributions from more than 100 riders and staff, past and present, it would have made for very grim reading if an even stronger draft version had not been leaked a few months before publication.
Even so, the final assessment was bad enough.
Autocratic coaches, some massively over-promoted, working without oversight. Growing rifts between haves and have-nots. Athletes and staff afraid to flag up problems for fear of losing their jobs, a threat made real by the number of colleagues bundled out of the door with non-disclosure agreements.
The impression was of a programme that was winning despite the system but was only a few bad turns away from a horrible crash.
Of course, there are those who have pointed out the report was always going to read this way, as the panel which wrote it was set up to listen to a decade’s worth of grievances at a workplace that is fundamentally not for everybody.
As Shane Sutton, the brilliant coach whose questionable suitability for management instigated the whole affair, put it: “Elite sport is, by definition, an exclusive environment, and there will be individuals who respond well to this environment and others who will not.”
I have heard words to this effect several times over the last few months, often with exasperated references to high-achieving tough talkers like Sir Alex Ferguson or Eddie Jones, and underlined with an accusatory: “Are we really going to tear down the world’s best high-performance system?”
My answer has been consistent: “No. Let’s make it better.”
One of the things that shocked me most about the cycling report was the description of ‘adult-child’ relationships between coaches and athletes, and a failure on the part of British Cycling to prepare these athletes for life after sport. In fact, they were ‘absolutely discouraged’ from pursuing outside interests, such as an education.
An Olympic medal might have guaranteed at least some post-career income back in the days when Britain was winning a dozen every four years. But not now. And 20 years of riding around a velodrome, pulling an oar or following a stripe on the bottom of a pool does not bring the never-need-to-work-again security of a Premier League footballer.
The good news is that there is a publicly funded solution to this already available within the British sports system and it is called the Talented Athlete Scholarship Scheme. Its mantra is ‘dual careers’ and it provides financial support for sportsmen and sportswomen who want to continue their educations at college or university.
OK, this doesn’t fit easily for every sport, but it is telling that half of England’s women’s football team and most of the women’s rugby union side – both world class outfits – received TASS backing, as do more than 400 athletes from 30 other sports.
Cycling is not one of those sports but there are encouraging signs the sport has learned a few lessons of its own. Riders are now receiving a lot more advice on ‘building their brands’ and British Cycling is starting to use its sponsors for training and work placements.
To slightly misquote British rowing legend Sir Steve Redgrave, will any of this make the boat go faster? Probably not.
But it should make British elite sport a happier, more relaxed, more sustainable vessel, somewhere people want to be, moving forward.
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