2012: Can we get any better?

Britain has basked in its sporting success in Beijing, but now the pressure is on to achieve even more when the Games come to London in four years' time. The Independent's specialist writers assess the room for improvement

Athletics
By Mike Rowbottom

s Dave Collins, the performance director for UK Athletics, readily agreed yesterday, four medals – the total won here – would clearly not be enough in London. In fact, four medals was not enough for Beijing, given that UK Sport had set a target of five.

Collins argued that had circumstances been different, Britain might have had another two or three medals. Certainly earning four fourth places – through Goldie Sayers in the javelin, Kelly Sotherton in the heptathlon, Lisa Dobriskey in the 1500m and the men's 400 metre relay team – proved a bittersweet achievement.

So what other circumstances might have obtained? Well, Dobriskey could have got herself into a better position earlier in her race, so that her finishing flourish could have told. Sotherton might have performed just that bit better had her preparations not been affected by a kidney infection which prevented her doing a heptathlon before Beijing. The men's 400m relay team might have made the podium if they had one more top-level runner, allowing one athlete to be rested in the heats. As for Sayers, she threw a British record and missed bronze by 38cm.

There is a debate going on about the value of bringing large teams to the Olympics – on Friday Liz Nicholl, the director of elite sport at UK Sport, the Lottery funding body, suggested that tough decisions may soon have to be made and that there may be a smaller British athletics representation in London. But the British Olympic Association stated that it wants to see British participation in 2012 in as many events as possible.

Collins is stuck with that conundrum, as he said yesterday. and is not yet in the position where he can start "honing". The domestic sport is still building – and the clock for London 2012 is ticking. But the Beijing Games will have proved a valuable learning experience for the seven British athletes who made a final for the first time, such as the 100m runner Jeanette Kwakye, the 400m runner Martyn Rooney and Dobriskey. All three look capable of making an impact at London 2012.

In the long jump, 21-year-old Greg Rutherford has the talent and competitive instinct to earn a medal in London, while Stratford might yet see a local girl, Christine Ohuruogu, defending her Olympic 400m title at the age of 28.

Collins has been critical of the development programme which is supposed to have supplied his elite end of the sport with new talent. But he pointed to the presence of such talented youngsters as the 200m and 400m runner Chris Clarke and the 17-year-old sprinter Ashlee Nelson, the youngest in the team, as reasons to be cheerful for London.

It is also a fair bet that Britain's world junior 1500m champion, Stephanie Twell, who narrowly failed to reach the final here, will be making a bigger splash four years from now, while the sprinter Asha Phillip and 19-year-old 400m hurdler Perri Shakes-Drayton offer grounds for hope.

Britain may also benefit from the effect of the new regime in terms of protecting young athletes from the overactive ambitions of their personal coaches. Collins estimates that at least four athletes have been overworked in such a manner in recent years. Nurturing, rather than torturing, is the new watchword.

Given the success of the British cyclists here it has been suggested that UK Athletics might do well to learn something from their operation. But Collins insisted that several key elements of the cycling operation, such as centralised, regionalised training centres and teams of specialist support staff, were already a part of the athletics infrastructure.

"At the end of the day, though, we are different sports," Collins said. "There were 200 nations competing in athletics here, and 40 different countries won medals, from China down to the Dutch Antilles. This is a genuine world sport."

Swimming
By Nick Harris

Rebecca Adlington's double gold show transformed a decent British swimming performance at these Games into a superlative one. Six medals, three of them in the pool and three in the new 10km open water swims, represents a haul twice as good as UK Sport expected.

Michael Scott, the Australian performance director of British Swimming, revealed here that the target for London 2012 is six swimming medals. There are encouraging signs that that mark will be met or bettered.

In addition to Adlington's wins in the 400m and 800m freestyle, Jo Jackson won a bronze in the 400m, Kerri-Anne Payne and Cassie Patten won silver and bronze in the women's 10km marathon and David Davies took silver in the men's event.

That earned third place in the medals table (behind the USA's 12 golds and Australia's eight) with two Team GB golds, two silvers and two bronze.

"We can't sit back and say we're the top European nation. There's still a lot of hard work to do to ensure we're competitive again in 2012," Scott said. To that end, British Swimming has just announced that five new Intensive Training Centres will be established in Bath, Stockport, Loughborough, Swansea and Stirling, in order to hothouse talent. Dennis Pursley, a veteran who spent 14 years in charge of American swimming, has been appointed as Britain's national head coach. From next month Team GB will become the only nation to have a specialist open-water performance director, when Mark Perry takes up his post.

All this would be for nothing without emerging talent, of course. Adlington should contend for multiple medals in London. Gemma Spofforth was just 0.04sec away from a bronze here in the 100m backstroke and big things are expected of Lizzie Simmonds, 17, in the 200m backstroke. The freestyler Fran Halsall, 18, as well as Jemma Lowe, 18, Hannah Miley, 19, and Ellen Gandy, 17, should all be part of a strong team.

While Davies, 23, was Britain's only man to win a swimming medal here, a crop of young GB men are expected to challenge towards 2012, including Marco Loughran, 19, who is the fastest 100m backstroker in the world of his age and the teenager Daniel Sliwinski, who won two breaststroke golds in the youth world championships last month.

Cycling
By Paul Newman

Dan Hunt and the rest of the British Cycling coaching team have answered the question before. How on earth can they improve on seven gold medals from 10 track events, one on the road, plus four silvers and two bronzes?

"After the world championships in Palma in 2007 people asked how we could go out and win more medals, but that's exactly what we did in the worlds at Manchester this year," Hunt said. "Then people said we'd peaked too early and wondered how we would be able to step up again at the Olympics."

The bad news for every other country is twofold: not only is a new generation of world-class British riders emerging but nearly all the medal winners of 2008 also plan to be competing for places in 2012. Paul Manning, a mainstay of the pursuit team, has retired, but the lure of London means that the fire still burns within riders like Bradley Wiggins and Chris Hoy, who have both competed in three Games and have won 11 medals, including seven golds, between them.

Hoy will be 36 in 2012 and he will have to fight for his place, particularly given the superb performances here of the 20-year-old Jason Kenny. Victoria Pendleton, gold medallist in the sprint, is in a similar situation. One challenge could come from Shanaze Reade, who is talking about making up for her BMX disappointment in 2012 and combining it with a career on the track. On the men's side Kenny, Steven Burke, Geraint Thomas and Ed Clancy did well in Beijing. Brailsford is determined to have a team competing in the major professional road races from 2010.

Perhaps the biggest question heading towards London will be whether Britain's rivals can catch them up. Shayne Bannan, the leader of the Australian team who were the dominant force in Athens but found themselves totally eclipsed four years later, said: "We've got plans that we've put in place for London, but it's going to be a really hard task to catch the Brits in four years. Let's not kid ourselves."

Sailing
By Stuart Alexander

With five medals at both Sydney and Athens and now six in Qingdao, the expectation of even greater success on the home waters of Weymouth Bay will be high and the pressure even greater. But sailors have long careers, talent does not deteriorate and the work has already begun. If it ain't broke, don't fix it will be the guiding principle from the Royal Yachting Association's administration team.

From 1996, where the tally was just two silvers, the system has not really changed, but the efficiency with which it is run and the impact of funding from the Lottery and commercial sponsors has been the envy of rivals.

Weymouth is where the Olympic trials used to be staged. Sarah Ayton, Paul Goodison, Bryony Shaw and Nick Dempsey all live there. The rest of the current squad trains there in a facility being set up in the old Royal Navy base at Portland. It is capable of staging Olympic-size events already.

Ben Ainslie, the Star pairing of Iain Percy and Andrew Simpson, the Laser gold medallist Paul Goodison and the bronze medallist windsurfer Shaw have said they want to be back. Most of the others do too, but they will be made to earn their places.

This is a programme that rolls forward and it is much easier to build on success than rectify failure. Britain's youth development programme means there is a steady flow of world-class talent and those talented sailors will be hungry for the opportunity to shine in front of a home crowd.

At least three more medals were up for grabs in China. As Percy said, the objective is to have the representatives of all 10 sailing events in the medal zone in four years. After that, it is up to them.

Rowing
By Christopher Dodd

The era of Redgrave and Pinsent is over. Rowing's six Beijing medals were won across the team by men, women and lightweights, two of each metal.

The advance has been gradual since the two rowing knights won Britain's only gold across all sports in Atlanta in 1996. Every department has been strengthened. A successful recruiting and development programme is at work. However, issues remain if London 2012's medal haul is to outshine that which was achieved in Beijing.

This year, the rowing team's medics were busy. Five of the 12 crews suffered serious disruption from injuries and illness and at least two others suffered knock-on effects from such problems. This could be bad luck, or it could have been imposed by crews taking on a full-time workload.

The question of home advantage is complex too. The much-vaunted Chinese team finished up with only two medals here. Complacency from a settled management and coaching team is the main threat to rowing's prospects for 2012, but there are issues to tackle apart from filling retirees' seats. Foremost among them is injury, particularly to the back. Research could be done on nutrition and diet, equipment design, the recovery part of the rowing stroke and how to recruit from other sports. Cycling, for example, obtained Rebecca Romero and Chris Hoy from rowing.

Boxing
By Alan Hubbard

Before gloving up for 2012, amateur boxing must stop punching itself on the nose. The unseemly scrap between the Amateur Boxing Association and the head coach, Terry Edwards, has disrupted hopes of improving on the three medals acquired here. It is unlikely that Edwards, who had the support of his boxers but not the blazers, will remain in charge. Not only is he deeply unhappy, but he is 65 and his wife is pressing him to retire. The bulk of the squad say that if he goes, they go too, and will turn professional.

This includes all three medal winners and the teenager Billy Joe Saunders, whose untimely suspension exacerbated the rift between boxers and blazers. Frankie Gavin, weighed off before Beijing, is also expected to turn pro. So whoever succeeds Edwards will have many gaps to fill. There are good juniors emerging and we might even see another Khan in 2012 – Amir's brother Haroon, 15. Women's boxing is set to feature in London, which will be good news for Hartlepool's Amanda Coulson. And a return to three-minute rounds, from two, will mean more punching and less prancing.

However, there has been another recent body blow, with two of the best teenage prospects being groomed for 2012, the middleweight George Groves and bantamweight Michael Maguire, signing for David Haye's new promotional organisation. Should the flyweight Khalid Yafai, 19, join the exodus his substitute could be his 16-year-old brother Gamal, a world junior champion.

The rest
By Nick Harris

Tom Daley is a poster boy in waiting for the London Games, so in one sense it was the diver's misfortune to appear here at 14. The pressure was enormous. For London, expectations should be more realistic.

His first event, the 10m synchro with Blake Aldridge, ended in farce but Daley finished a creditable seventh in the individual 10m. Daley knows he must included higher-tariff dives. Can he win a medal in London? His coach, Andy Banks, thinks so.

British Olympic Association research shows around 70 per cent of gold medallists have been to a Games before. Tae kwon do's Aaron Cook, promising at 17 here, could get a medal in London. The gymnast Louis Smith, 19, has a bronze. The triathlete Hollie Avil, 18, was undermined by food poisoning. She should be a contender in London.

In 2012, Team GB will qualify in a variety of team sports. A GB football team will play, even if it only uses English players. The BOA is also running an Olympic Ambition 2012 Programme, targeting investment in 104 promising athletes. Watch out for archers Thomas Barber and Sarah Smith, 16; canoeist siblings Elizabeth and Robert Neave, 21 and 23; shooter Ken Parr, 19; badminton's Chris Adcock, 19, and Gabrielle White, 17; and modern pentathletes Katy Burke, 19, and James Cooke, 17.

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