We’re now into the home straight at Rio 2016 and what a couple of weeks it’s been. Here are three of our observations from the Games so far:
1. Team GB’s stunning performance – with several days to go Team GB is on course for its most successful overseas Olympics ever, will surely break its target of 48 medals and might even match or surpass the hugely successful London 2012 performance. There have been standout performances across sports we’re traditionally strong in (e.g. rowing), lesser known sports (diving), new sports (golf and trampolining) and we’re even making a comeback in swimming thanks to Adam Peaty.
This success is in large part down to lottery funding which has supported sports, athletes and coaches to achieve their potential. But since UK Sport and Sport England were founded in 1997 the success of the former, if judged in Olympic medals, has not been matched by the latter, if judged in terms of participation. Success at the Games has not translated into increased participation at home – we love the spectacle but it doesn’t inspire adults to change ingrained inactive habits.
2. Massive long-term investment in success – the success of Team GB across successive Olympics has come about through long-term investment. And it is rare these days, especially in sphere touched by politics, to see this kind of thinking. Success like that we are seeing in Rio does not happen overnight, it is not a chance occurrence, the result of a few incredibly talented athletes striving against the odds. It is product of years of financial investment into the structures that provide the necessary culture and environment for capable, driven people to be the best they can be.
That commitment and dedication is matched by the athletes themselves. Rowers often talk about the 4-year cycle and a friend of Adam Peaty’s said “for the last seven years, Adam has dedicated his whole life to swimming”. Olympic success is the product of years or even careers of hard work, results in a moment of success, and hopefully a lifetime of satisfaction.
3. The shadow of doping – unfortunately, as much as we’d like to be able to celebrate every outstanding achievement and world record, the events that preceded the Olympics have cast a long shadow over the Games and led many to question the voracity of some of the more eye-popping performances. The deficiencies in national anti-doping systems and the decision of the IOC to allow Russia to compete, in contrast to the decision of the IPC, have tarnished these Games and led directly to many accusations between athletes competing for medals. We should not be blind to the very real possibility that medals have been won by athletes who have been doping, thereby robbing others of the chance to compete on a level playing field. Ross Tucker of The Science of Sport has written a superb article analysing the progression of world records in athletics and poses some important questions for all sports.
Hopefully though these Games will be remembered as much for the stories and personalities as for the records, and we’ll all try to remember what sport is really about. It’s not just about the achieving the pinnacle of performance for your country (remember where that got us in the 70s and 80s) but everyone enjoying the fun, camaraderie and life-affirming feeling that sport can give us all.