Team GB's Olympic gold medallists have been barred from automatically receiving an honour from the Queen. Tough new rules demanded by David Cameron mean topping the podium is no longer enough. The Prime Minister has insisted people appointed MBE, OBE, CBE, dame or knight must have done more than win at the London Games.
But after 42 Britons took home gold medals at the London Olympics, and with a target for 42 more golds at the Paralympics, the public demand for a rush of awards in the New Year's Honours list risks forcing the PM into a rethink.
The Whitehall committee that assesses nominations for sporting honours must now take into account the length of career, other honours they have received and whether they have "given back" to their sport or wider community.
All gold medallists at the Beijing Olympics were at least created an MBE. But Sir Bob Kerslake, who chairs the honours committee, said: "Given the move away from 'automaticity' in other fields, this no longer seems right."
It is part of a shake-up of the system, which has also seen mandarins, ambassadors and military chiefs told not to expect automatic honours. The Queen's Lord Lieutenants have warned against "knee-jerk" awarding of honours in response to "media clamour".
The policy, quietly drawn up earlier this year, could spell disappointment for London 2012 medallists, particularly those early in their careers. The awarding of honours to Olympians has long been contentious. After the swimmer Rebecca Adlington won two golds in Bejing she was appointed an OBE, but Kelly Holmes was made a dame after winning two golds in Athens four years earlier.
Bookmakers slashed the odds of the cyclist Bradley Wiggins receiving a knighthood after he won gold in the road race time trial just weeks after winning the Tour de France. Jessica Ennis's emotional win in the heptathlon and Mo Farah's double gold in the 5,000m and 10,000m triggered calls for a damehood and knighthood, while the record-breaking sailor Ben Ainslie has also been linked with becoming a "Sir".
However, the honours sport committee must use new criteria including "giving back … in line with the Prime Minister's strategic objectives, taking into account how the candidate has used their profile for the benefit of the wider community, and/or the development of sport". Consideration of career length might also lead to "a silver medallist who has competed at the highest level over a long period getting an award, when an 18-year-old winning gold at first competition might not". Repeated success will not lead to an automatic upgrade to honours already held.
Sir Bob told the Public Administration Select Committee earlier this year that making a gold medal the "sole criterion" for an honour has created "a number of anomalies and unsatisfactory outcomes" including people being rewarded "without 'giving back'". The "new approach" could deliver "equitable proportions of awards for the Olympics and Paralympics".
Lee Pearson, a nine-times gold-medal winning Paralympic equestrian, hit out at the way Paralympians have been overlooked in the honours system. He told The IoS: "Kelly Holmes goes to one Olympics, gets two gold medals and becomes a dame. I go to three Olympics, get nine gold medals and slowly work my way up the honours. People say now if I do well I'll get a knighthood... It should have come years ago."
Mr Cameron hinted at difficulties in the new system last week. "There are so many new heroes and heroines, how they are all going to be recognised without completely upsetting the system is going to be a challenge," he told The Mail on Sunday. But the PM will come under pressure to bend his new rules, having failed to secure the predicted "Olympic bounce" in the polls. A ComRes survey for The Independent on Sunday shows 27 per cent of people think he is a good prime minister, the same as in July. The Tories are up one point on 33 per cent, Labour unchanged on 42 per cent and Lib Dems 10 per cent.
The London Olympics chief, Lord Coe, chairs the sports honours committee. Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, who won 16 Paralympic medals including 11 golds and also sits on the committee, told The IoS: "It has never been automatic, but there's been an assumption in the last two Games that a single gold gets you an MBE and a double an 'O'. We wanted to get people away from thinking it's completely automatic.
"We're trying to say, 'It is about sporting achievement, but it's also about other things, including how close you are to retirement'."
Quotas published in November allow for one sporting knighthood or damehood, four CBEs, 20 OBEs and 38 MBEs. Clive Efford, Labour sports spokesman, said: "It's a shame we can't recognise all of Team GB for what they did for the country. It's what the public wants."
A Cabinet Office spokesman said: "As with all honours, awards recommended for Olympians, Paralympians and others will be entirely on merit."