'Money by medals' pays dividends

As the Athens post-mortems begin, Nick Townsend says well-organised sailing and cycling have been the pioneers
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The Independent Online

The scene was somehow reminiscent of the Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band LP cover as they stood on the steps of their aeroplane at Gatwick on Monday evening, all teeth 'n' smiles. Except that the heads in question were assorted Great Britain medallists, brandishing those most precious of all Olympic mementos.

The scene was somehow reminiscent of the Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band LP cover as they stood on the steps of their aeroplane at Gatwick on Monday evening, all teeth 'n' smiles. Except that the heads in question were assorted Great Britain medallists, brandishing those most precious of all Olympic mementos.

In essence, that widely published photograph represented a consolation prize for those not fortunate enough to become Lottery millionaires. It was a reminder that, even as a Lottery loser, you had still contributed to the £94m which ensured that Britain finished 10th in the Olympic medal rankings, with an aggregate 30 medals. It's that feelgood moment, one sufficient to persuade you that your £1 wasn't utterly wasted.

Further scrutiny will reveal, however, that the photograph is dominated by sailors, cyclists and rowers. When UK Sport, Sport England and the British Olympic Association conduct analyses of successes and post-mortems into failures, there will be lengthy debate about value for money. Judo, in the past a consistent source of medals, did not secure one of any hue from a team of eight for the £4.1m invested; neither did Britain's six triathletes, despite an input of £2.6m.

While the track-and-field campaign ultimately concluded with triumphalism, by virtue of Kelly Holmes and the men's 100m relay quartet, not to ignore Kelly Sotherton's earlier bronze, it is worth reminding ourselves that those medals "cost" nearly £2.85m of Lottery punters' money each. Even so, that achievement may be considered exceptional value, compared with Britain's two swimming bronzes, secured at £3.2m each. Extravagance by any calculation, it may be contended, although Bill Sweetenham, swimming's recently derided performance director, maintains his programme will all come to fruition in Beijing.

Of the non-track-and-field events, Great Britain's sailors, with two golds, one silver and two bronzes, proved themselves the most efficient alchemists when it came to transforming Lottery money into medals. In doing so, they have established Britain as the world's top Olympic sailing nation. They were marginally superior to the cyclists, followed by the rowers and the equestrian team. The canoeists could also be deemedoverachievers.

Beyond those sports, though, this was not an auspicious Olympics. Those successful federations will inevitably hail the "money by medals" incentive system by which the accumulation of Olympic honours defines future Lottery funding. Though such a competitive system contains its imperfections, it has created a culture of efficiency and professionalism which has yielded significant rewards.

British track-cycling is one such beneficiary. As triple Athens medallist Bradley Wiggins explains: "Lottery funding is the biggest thing that's happened for all sports, but particularly in cycling. It's allowed athletes to go full-time and not have to worry about their mortgages. Also, UK Sport have given a fantastic amount of money to develop our bikes. There's so much technology involved; even the handlebar set-up. They really are the best bikes in the world. We also have the best back-up crew. It really has been a team effort."

The same remark could apply to sailing. As one of Britain's élite sailors, Iain Percy, the Sydney gold medallist, reflected before Athens: "The organisation is crucial. God forbid that any athlete should sing the praises of his governing body, but the RYA [Royal Yachting Association] do a bloody good job. It's a very slick set-up." Rod Carr, the RYA chief executive, must accept most of the plaudits for that. But what of those whose campaigns failed to produce medals, and who will probably be expected to operate on a reduced funding? Will that negative response not merely imperil further their expectations in 2008?

Densign White, chairman of the British Judo Federation (BJF), is philosophical about the effect a lack of medals will have on future financing. "I expect it to drop," says the three-times Olympian, who had anticipated at least one medal, from Craig Fallon or Karina Bryant, in Athens. "The only reason you receive funding from UK Sport is to get medals. But despite that, we still expect to progress. It'd mean we may have to cut back on certain overseas events, but that may not be a bad thing."

It has been widely suggested that the sailing and cycling organisations should provide a paradigm for success by those sports whose athletes underachieved. White responds: "We believe we already have one of the best models in the UK in our approach to strength and conditioning and the sports-science involvement. However, we've already met to discuss plans about going forward to Beijing and beyond. We need to look at people training the athletes spending more time coaching them. At times, they're more like travel agents than coaches. They're spending too much time making sure [the competitors] get to events rather than having contact time with them. We want to ensure that changes."

Though track and field will continue to be the main focus, a successful Olympics offers a rare recruitment opportunity for so-called minority sports - even though some are, undeservedly, deemed the exclusive province of the well-educated middle class. Rowing suffers from an image influenced by the Boat Race and Henley. With that partly in mind, Sir Steve Redgrave proposes to introduce rowing to inner-city schoolchildren. The five-times Olympic gold medallist is involved in a project in which two rowing machines will be installed in each of around 50 schools in the Birmingham area. "We hope they'll all enjoy it, but those who do well may want to take rowing up as a sport," he says.

The silver medal won by lone Briton Amir Khan, honoured in his home town of Bolton yesterday, is already rekindling lost interest in amateur boxing.

In sailing, many youngsters will have been inspired by Ben Ainslie's exploits. "I know some people think sailing is hugely expensive and élitist," says the gold medallist at Sydney and Athens. "But at club level it's not. People only read about Ellen MacArthur, and perhaps watch Olympic sailing. Yet every reservoir in England has a sailing club. There's a huge membership, it's not expensive at all. You don't even have to own your own boat."

And if you possess sufficient character, energy and aptitude, with the help of Britain's Lottery players, you may just end up emulating Ainslie or Shirley Robertson and her crew.