Fortnight of miracles

Britain have climbed from 36th to third in the medals table inside a generation. Robin Scott-Elliot spells out how and why

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The Independent Online

Where to begin? Try Lake Lanier, a large reservoir some way to the north-east of Atlanta, 16 years ago and two men slumped, exhausted over their oars. "Shoot me if you see me in a boat again," mumbled Steve Redgrave. His partner Matthew Pinsent said nothing but it marked the launchpad for Britain's rise from the depths of that one hard-earned, lonely gold medal and 36th place in the medal table behind Ethiopia and Algeria to today's 29 golds, bettered only by the unsurpassable duo of the United States and China.

Over the last 16 days we have witnessed a sporting miracle, the most meticulously planned and funded miracle – the 541 were fed with as many loaves, fishes and protein shakes as they could ever have wished for – but a miracle nonetheless. Those around the British Olympic team like to talk of the journey their athletes have been on to and through London 2012 – they are fond of a slogan at the BOA – but what happened here is the culmination of a longer journey, one that has its source in the British sporting wasteland that was the Atlanta Games of 1996.

In the decade and a half since, British Olympic sport has changed out of all recognition. There was not a better prepared team in the 2012 Games and it is that, the absolute attention to minute detail, the almost minute-by-minute planning over a four-year Olympic cycle, that allowed those already at the top of their sport, such as Sir Chris Hoy, to stay there and those with ambition and talent, like the boxer Nicola Adams, to get there.

The next stopping point post-Atlanta was 1997, when UK Sport was born and given lottery funding to spend on the elite of British sport, in particular with a view to getting British feet on Olympic podiums. It is UK Sport that determines who gets what – in December they will decide the level of funding for the 2016 Games – and it is strictly based on success. Fail, as swimming has in London, and funds will be cut, which bluntly means athletes going back to the day job. UK Sport, under the shrewd guidance of Peter Keen, now its former performance director, deserves a healthy share of any plaudits handed out post-London.

Money matters, as does good governance – there remain issues with some sports such as taekwondo and wrestling – and as does support, be it coaching, medical, physiological or psychological. The contribution of the likes of cycling's Dave Brailsford, the most wanted man in sport, and David Tanner, the architect of rowing's success on the lake of Eton, cannot be overstated. There is a winning mentality ingrained in both sports – cycling is the prime example of one that has transformed itself, on and off the track, since coming back from Atlanta with just two bronze medals.

Colin Moynihan, the occasionally combative chairman of the BOA, suggested four key points yesterday in considering his team's successes: funding creates a platform, backroom support is at a level never seen before, no gold medal is won without a gold medal-winning coach, and silvers have become gold in London thanks to the propulsion provided by home support.

There was a home effect. There was always going to be – all hosts of recent Games have enjoyed an upsurge in performance – but by how much remained, and actually remains, the question. "It is very difficult to quantify," said Sir Clive Woodward, the British team's deputy chef de mission. "It is clear there is an advantage. Greg Rutherford talked about getting a lift from the support in the stadium."

Rutherford was one of those who rose to the occasion, and that was pretty much the signature of Britain's team. The medals were collected across 17 sports: athletics, boxing, canoe, cycling, diving, equestrianism, gymnastics, hockey, judo, modern pentathlon, rowing, sailing, shooting, swimming, tennis, taekwondo and triathlon – a marked improvement of 47 from 11 sports in Beijing.

With the painful exception of swimming, the big five hit their targets. Athletics will forever have those two golden Saturday nights while cycling remains the golden standard for any sport in this country, although Tanner's rowers may quibble with that. The determination of the men's eight and Zac Purchase and Mark Hunter to win gold and only gold – silver or bronze was no consolation or consideration – is an example to all, and one that Britain's swimmers would do well to embrace.

Sailing met its target, but four of the five medals were silver and they too have been accepted with a frown of disappointment. "I'm not going to remember this Olympics for medals, every time we talk about the performance it's going to be disappointing," said Andrew Simpson, silver medallist in the Star class with Iain Percy.

"We're still hurting, it's very painful," said Percy. "It's a could-have, should-have feeling for us." And that should bring a satisfied nod of acknowledgement from UK Sport's London headquarters; a winning culture has by and large taken root across British Olympic sport.

The biggest winner of all was found in the Velodrome. Hoy was never going to fail. There is now an unwinnable debate to be had, one to fill the empty hours that runners, riders, jumpers and divers have covered so readily for the last two weeks, over who was the best of British in 2012? Hoy is the most decorated, Mo Farah's two distance golds give his supporters legs, Jessica Ennis shrugged off the weight of expectation and was utterly dominant, Ben Ainslie refused to accept anything less than a fourth gold, Adams made history in the ring … it is a happily long list.

Redgrave and Pinsent were of course here too, beaming from the sidelines. They would have recognised the sporting achievement unfolding all around them – what surrounded it would have been pleasantly alien to their Atlanta experience. These two great Olympians have been properly succeeded and the planning has already begun to replace the likes of Hoy. The Scot's Olympic cycle is done but this is a wheel that keeps on turning, a never-ending journey but one that can be embarked upon accompanied by a truly, and to this extent unexpectedly, golden glow. Next stop Rio.

"The aspiration is always to push on and do better," said Moynihan. "If you are an athlete, if you are a team, the aspiration is always to do better, no question at all in my mind."