David Owen

Another Olympic Games, another huge British medal haul – it really should no longer come as a surprise.

Money is the most potent performance-enhancing substance in sport and, thanks mainly to the National Lottery, Team GB has plenty of it.

Yet, with the media spotlight moving swiftly on to school examination results, I can award myself no more than a B+ for my prediction, delivered in May, that: “a total of 60 now looks to be within range; a few unexpected absentees might yet nudge the prospective tally still higher”.

The wonder is that this forecast was a good deal closer than most others I am aware of - including, astonishingly, that of UK Sport which - having, I still think unwisely, set itself a public goal early in the Rio cycle of surpassing its London 2012 haul of 65 medals - suddenly on July 14 produced a new target of winning “at least 48 Olympic medals”.

Was this the product of cold feet, or thoughtful spin doctors mindful of the importance, with a new Government bedding in and public finances still tight, of being able to brand the Rio 2016 campaign a success?

If I had to choose, I would guess the latter.

But it doesn’t really matter: with the original goal now dazzlingly achieved, UK Sport has a strong claim to be recognised as the most successful quango in recorded history, in terms of accomplishing the tasks that have been set for it.

And yet, there is a rather fundamental question that refuses to go away: What - beyond the obvious benefit of providing a supplementary means of winding up Australians should the Ashes series go pear-shaped - is it all for?

UK Sport, chaired by Rod Carr, delivered a successful medal haul for Britain at Rio 2016 ©Getty Images
UK Sport, chaired by Rod Carr, delivered a successful medal haul for Britain at Rio 2016 ©Getty Images

This year of all years should have taught us not to be easily surprised - by anything.

But I have been startled at the speed with which - now that the imperative of supporting London 2012’s ‘reconnecting young people with sport’ narrative has receded - the argument that Olympic silverware could, in and of itself, substantially boost sports participation has been dropped.

Last Sunday, when UK Sport chair Rod Carr was asked, “Why do medals matter?” by a serious-minded BBC Radio 4 interviewer, I must admit I expected him to trot off along the ‘inspiring others to take up sport’ path.

This, however, is what he actually said:

“I think medals matter because we all feel as a nation inspired by the performance of Olympians over in Rio.

“We have a better sense of national well-being even cohesion.

“And that spills over into other parts of life, you know, in business and not only in terms of physical fitness.

“So I think winning internationally and particularly at the Olympics has implications even beyond sport.”

As the conversation proceeded, listeners will have picked up the realistic and sensible message that sports participation levels depend on the actions of a range of bodies, including local authorities, grass-roots sports quangos, the department for education and private clubs.

They will also have heard the considered opinion of Mike Weed, professor of applied policy sciences at Canterbury Christ Church University, who said:

“I think the lesson to be learned is, if you are trying to invest your money in terms of using an Olympic Games, particularly an overseas Olympic Games, to get people who don’t participate in sport to suddenly start participating, then that’s pretty much money wasted.”

One of the points argued by Weed was that the feats accomplished by individual Olympians might actually put unsporty types off lacing up jogging shoes or picking up a racquet because they think, “Well, if that’s what sport is about, if that’s what is required for sport, that is so far removed from anything I could do it’s almost not worth trying in the first place.”

I am not sure I would go that far - and, frankly, even if the only tangible dividend from the £550 million ($728 million/€646 million) or so of Government and Lottery money that UK Sport spends on Olympic and Paralympic sport over the four-year cycle is to make the nation feel better about itself for a couple of weeks, well, it is at least arguable that it is still worth it.

If you do concede that Weed might be onto something, however, it seems to me another reason for reforming this highly effective system in a way I have previously advocated: by ring-fencing a proportion of available funding for Olympic and Paralympic team sports.

Rio 2016 has left me more than ever convinced that this should be done as a matter of urgency.

The hockey success of Great Britain's women cost more than £16 million ©Getty Images
The hockey success of Great Britain's women cost more than £16 million ©Getty Images

Look at this table which classifies GB’s medal-winning Rio 2016 sports in order of the cost per medal.

Bear in mind that tennis, golf and rugby sevens received no funding from UK Sport, even though rugby requested it for the women’s team.

SportCost per medal
1. Shooting£1.6 million
2. Gymnastics£2.09 million
3. Triathlon£2.49 million
4. Diving£2.49 million
5. Cycling£2.55 million
6. Taekwondo£2.68 million
7. Swimming£3.47 million
8. Athletics£3.83 million
9. Boxing£4.59 million
10. Canoeing£5.01 million
11. Badminton£5.66 million
12. Equestrian£6 million
13. Rowing£6.52 million
14. Judo£7.37 million
15. Sailing
£8.5 million
16. Hockey£16.1 million

What do you notice? Right: hockey, the only purely team sport, comes right at the bottom.

Why? Because team sports require lots of athletes, and are therefore expensive, plus they yield few medals.

Indeed, the GB hockey team could have had a perfect Olympics, winning gold in both men’s and women’s competitions, and they would still have come below all other sports bar sailing - plus archery, fencing and modern pentathlon, which received funding but won no medals - in this table.

In terms of this crude measure of costs per medal, it is simply impossible for team sports to compete – which, for my money, goes a long way to explaining why so few of them are now funded in the first place.

If you are ranked 10th-12th in the world in an individual event, you have a shot at a final and hence a medal; if you are the 10th-12th-ranked team globally, you risk being overlooked for funding because you are not thought to have Olympic podium potential.

And yet the potential social impact of team sports is enormous.

Rather than the loneliness of the long-distance runner, participants can get an immediate sense of belonging and of being part of a greater whole, such as that you might find in a gang (or, admittedly, the best individual sports clubs).

You tend to avoid the daunting aspect of Olympic champions alluded to by Weed, since you can be part of a winning team while being fairly run-of-the-mill yourself.

And, as argued in 2014 in a House of Lords debate by Baroness King of Bow, team sports “are the sports where you get the most bang for your buck in terms of grass-roots participation.

“They are the sports kids want to play.”

Neymar's winning penalty provided hosts Brazil with one of their moments of the Games ©Getty Images
Neymar's winning penalty provided hosts Brazil with one of their moments of the Games ©Getty Images

Even looking purely at the two-week Olympic period, while some individual events are over, seemingly, in the blink of an eye, the team competitions have a narrative that builds over the entire 16 days, or most of it.

The explosion of nationalistic joy that greeted Neymar’s gold medal-winning penalty for Brazil in the men’s football tournament was all the more intense for the problems that assailed the team in their early matches.

Similarly, while I have not yet seen statistics, the social media storm surrounding the GB women’s nail-biting, but ultimately victorious, hockey final versus the Netherlands, was probably fiercer and more emotional at least on my timeline than that for any other event.

Goalkeeper Maddie Hinch has returned from Rio as an athlete who has transcended her sport, a national heroine of a stature comparable to all bar the most decorated of Britain’s 2016 Olympians.

By current estimates, UK Sport looks likely to have a similar amount at its disposal for the Tokyo 2020 cycle as it had for Rio.

It has demonstrated it knows how to stack up the medals.

The time has come for more searching reflection as to how GB’s hard-earned Olympic superpower status can best be used to benefit the country and its people.