Here comes the gold rush
Britain's sportsmen and women are poised for their greatest deluge of Olympic medals in more than a century. Paul Newman reports from Beijing
Saturday 16 August 2008
It has been a while since Alistair Darling has been able to report good news, but some time around tomorrow lunchtime the Chancellor of the Exchequer may step into Downing Street to make an announcement. Thanks to the efforts of the country's sportsmen and women, he might report, Britain's gold reserves are overflowing.
If the first seven days of competition here at the Olympic Games have produced a fair smattering of success, this weekend is set to start a gold rush the like of which British sport has not seen for a century. Gold medals are expected over the next two days in the Laoshan velodrome, on Shunyi's rowing lake, in the algae-plagued seas off Qingdao and even in the Water Cube swimming centre.
The pattern was set at Laoshan yesterday. British cyclists were always expected to dominate, but the sprint team of Chris Hoy, Jamie Staff and Jason Kenny were not among the leading contenders for gold in Dave Brailsford's squad. Even when the Britons reached yesterday's final many expected the French, world champions for the last three years, to get the better of them, but Hoy led the team to victory, making the perfect start to his attempt to win three gold medals here.
The Scot's second could come in the keirin just after midday, but there is every chance that Britons will have won five more golds in the meantime. Rebecca Adlington went into this morning's 800m freestyle final seeking her second gold of the Games, having set an Olympic record in the semi-finals, Ben Ainslie and the British Yngling crew were due to start their sailing medal races this morning at the top of their respective rankings, Steve Williams and his colleagues in the men's four were favourites to take rowing gold at Shunyi, and Bradley Wiggins, having broken his own Olympic record in qualifying, was aiming to retain his individual pursuit title on the cycle track.
The gold standard should be maintained tomorrow, with three British crews favourites for rowing gold and Rebecca Romero and Wendy Houvenaghel aiming for a one-two on the cycle track, even if it is hard to see Paula Radcliffe recovering sufficiently from her recent double stress fracture of the femur to make an impact in the women's marathon.
Britain could be third in the overall medals table by close of play tomorrow, behind China and the United States, and while the gold rush looks likely to slow down come the middle of next week it looks certain to be the best performance by a British Olympic team since 1920, when 15 golds and 43 medals in total were won in Antwerp.
Even the 1920 totals are likely to be bettered, leaving the country with its greatest medal haul since the London Games of 1908, when there were 56 golds in a British total of 146 medals. In those days, mind, there were only British entries in some events and not much competition in sports such as polo and motorboating.
Remarkably, it is only 12 years since Britain had its worst Olympics in history, winning just one gold medal in Atlanta and finishing 36th in the table. In the following year money from the National Lottery started to flow into elite training programmes – support now runs at the rate of £100m a year – and British sport has not looked back. Eleven Olympic golds were won in Sydney eight years ago and nine in Athens in 2004, Britain finishing 10th in the medals table on both occasions.
UK Sport, which has to justify its Lottery grants to the Public Accounts Committee, set a target of 35 to 41 medals for the British team here. That total would probably secure eighth place in the table, but if everyone performs to expectations this weekend they should better that.
While Adlington's performances have been a welcome surprise in the pool, once again it is cycling, rowing and sailing that are providing the backbone of British success.
There are 11 more medal events to be contested in the velodrome and Britain has the world champions in seven of them. Even when Romero, world champion in the women's individual pursuit, found herself in second place in yesterday's qualifying it was another Briton, Houvenaghel, who stood at the top of the list. There was less than a fifth of a second between the two Britons and then a gap of more than three seconds to the rest of the field. The track events finish on Tuesday, but that is unlikely to be the end of British two-wheeled success, with Shanaze Reade a hot favourite for BMX gold on Thursday.
While the British sailors have not had things all their own way at Qingdao, they retain hopes of at least equalling their haul of five medals in both Sydney and Athens. Nick Rogers and Joe Glanfield (470), Nick Dempsey (windsurfer), Paul Goodison (Laser) and Iain Percy and Andrew Simpson (Keelboat) should all be in contention when their competitions reach a climax.
While the cyclists may win the most medals, it is arguably the rowers who have been punching most above their weight here. This is the first Olympics for 24 years in which there has been neither a Steve Redgrave nor a Matthew Pinsent in the squad, but 10 of the 12 British crews have reached this weekend's finals. In both Athens and Sydney Britons contested four rowing finals, though their medal return was excellent: two golds and a silver in 2000 and a gold, two silvers and a bronze in '04.
The rowers have been staying in a hotel near to Shunyi Lake, but have been inspired by the performances of other Britons like Adlington and Nicole Cooke. "We have a medal board in our hotel and seeing the medals go up in the first couple of days was great," Tom Baker, one of the men's four, said. "It's looking really good for the whole team, especially looking ahead to 2012."
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