Britain expects: The £265m gamble worth its weight in gold
Saturday 16 August 2008
From the early hours of this morning Britain has good reasons to expect its greatest weekend of sport; a surge of world-beating prowess on land and water that could net its athletes up to nine gold medals.
British sport has found a vein of Olympic gold here that is stretching all the way from old Beijing to the waters of Shanghai – where Ben Ainslie leads the chase for victory.
From the first thrilling exploits of the Welsh cyclist Nicole Cooke and the English swimmer Rebecca Adlington, there has been a sense that these Olympics would loom large, unimaginably so it would have seemed just a decade ago, in the annals of British sport. Now that hope is touching against the most exciting reality since Bobby Moore lifted the World Cup in 1966. We can confidently expect nine golds this weekend – a record for Britain in modern Olympics.
At last British sports fans who have travelled to the ends of the earth for so long have been reminded of the reason why. They are seeing the sportsmen and women perform to the very edge of their limits, and the measurements in the next days could be unprecedented. All of this suggests that when the world comes to London in four years time it will find a sports nation that has learnt to believe in itself again. So why now? Is it because Britain has suddenly discovered a superior breed of sportsmen and women?
No, it is not that. It is because on the tide of Britain's successful bid to host the next Olympics they have been given the means to do the job.
The British effort here has been underpinned by £265m worth of Lottery money – more than three times the investment in the team that won nine golds in Athens four years ago and £202m more than that spent on Sydney's 11 golds.
Along with this weekend's anticipated success there is an even greater certainty of political self-congratulation. Just a few days ago the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Andy Burnham, said: "Other countries like Australia now look to us as a country who got serious about sport and are now saying that they are in danger of falling behind team Great Britain in the medals table."
Against that claim, it perhaps needs to be remembered that Sydney alone has more Olympic-sized swimming pools than all of Britain, and that Australia has had an all-purpose sports centre in Canberra for more than 30 years. Another huge question concerns whether the surge of government backing for elite sport will expand into a more serious effort to improve grassroots facilities and readdress the damage caused by the selling-off of school playing fields.
This, though, is a question that probably should await recognition of what can happen when potentially world-class performers are given the right backing, which was the most haunting question in Atlanta in 1996 when Britain's only gold was won by Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent.
This morning Pinsent's gold-winning team-mate from Athens, Steve Williams, is considered one of the British bankers with his crew-mates Tom James, Andy Triggs-Hodge and Pete Reed.
At some point in this projected march to double figures in gold there will be a statement about the generosity of the Government's donations of Lottery money. The chances are it be will be drowned out by British cheers – along with the question: "Why did it take so long?"
Countdown to glory: Britain's medal hopes this weekend
Here, in chronological and cast order, is the roll call of British hope which started at 3.13 am when the swimmer Rebecca Adlington sought to add to the gold she won at the start of the week.
9.30am: Bradley Wiggins, a medallist in Athens, goes for more success in cycling pursuit.
10.30am: The four-man rowing team marches down the slipway.
Midday: Yachtsman Ben Ainslie, a serial medallist since the Atlanta Games, pursues another Finn class triumph in Shanghai waters. Sarah Ayton, Sarah Webb and Pippa Wilson start favourites in Yngling class yachting.
12.15pm: Chris Hoy, another proven winner, is the man to beat in the keirin event in track cycling.
00.30am Sunday: Paula Radcliffe attempts to redeem the pain of her breakdown in the Athens marathon.
8.50am: Mark Hunter and Zac Purchase, lightweight double sculls.
9.30am: Deborah Flood, Katherine Grainger, Francis Houghton and Annie Vernon strike out for gold in the women's quad sculls.
10.05am: Rebecca Romero and Wendy Houvenaghel threaten a gold and silver one-two on the cycle track – another success for Britain's riders.
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