If last year hosted Britain’s golden summer of sport then 2013 is proving one hell of successor. It may be less garlanded, less swaddled in red, white and blue but it is one that has provided yet further evidence that when it comes to sport, all sport, we have never had it so good. Britain has a true golden generation.
On Saturday morning the Union flag fluttered over Sydney, by the afternoon it was flying over Kitzbühel in Austria, raised on the shores of Lake Balaton in Hungary, and standing proud in the Pyrenees, cracking in the stiff mountain wind as Chris Froome pulled on the yellow jersey in the Tour de France. And then finally last night it flew over a corner of the capital.
Tennis, rugby union, triathlon, women’s boxing and cycling are sports in which Britons are winning, and the list goes on. A year after the best British Olympics for a hundred years, our golfers are preparing to join the greatest show on earth in Rio 2016 with a run of success this country has not seen for 20 years. Yesterday Justin Rose, winner of the US Open, looked on from the royal box; Chris Hoy from Andy Murray’s box. The Union flag and a crackling recording of the dirge of an anthem have become a must for event organisers.
In two days England’s cricketers, after a winter that saw them earn a first Test series win in India for 28 years, begin their campaign to win a third successive Ashes, something that has not been done since 1981. The focus will shift to Trent Bridge and the national summer game. It is one that will be intense, at times hyperbolic, always fascinated because sport matters in this country, or perhaps more pertinently to this country.
Britain’s broader place in the world has dwindled – instead of dispatching gunboats, it is now a train of thunder-thighed cyclists, a coxless four, or men in funny trousers with a sharp set of irons who set sail to remind the globe these islands are a player.
You could not swing a racket in the royal box yesterday without hitting a politician with an eye on another sporting bandwagon having the horses hitched. In a time of austerity, funding for Britain’s Olympians remains untouched – who would dare cut the cash that helps put a smile on the country’s worn face?
Sport has long been embedded in this country, part of its cultural identity, different sports for different classes but dug deep in society. What marks the current surge of British success is its breadth and its professionalism.
This is not “Play up, play up and play the game”. This is plan the game and win it. Team Sky’s ruthless, intricate mapping of Bradley Wiggins’ route to history last year, the first Briton to win in the 99th edition of the race, mirrored how British cycling has come to rule the Olympic world. Britain’s success at London 2012 owed plenty to executing well-funded, well-supported battle plans.
UK Sport, the body that hands out government and National Lottery funding to elite sport and ensures we get value for it via places on podiums, receives regular requests from curious counterparts around the world: how do you do it? Funding in Olympic sports – in rowing, sailing, cycling Britain rules the world – is all important. Money provides a down payment on medals; £347m will be spent on Britain’s Olympians in the Rio cycle and the promised return is more medals than in London 2012.
But there is brilliance, too. Murray is dazzling to watch on a tennis court, at a time when the men’s game has never been better. Froome, as dry and guarded in public as the Scot, is similarly engaging in his work. To watch each in action yesterday afternoon was enriching. Each is worth supporting for the manner in which they go about their business, regardless of what flag they do it beneath.
Sport is cyclical. the UK has four male golfers in the world’s top 10 at the moment, as many as the US, and has won five of the last 13 majors. The previous five had taken 20 years to amass. There is no one, all-embracing reason for the rise of the likes of Rose, Rory McIlroy, Darren Clarke and Graeme McDowell. Rose moved to the States to dot i’s and cross t’s, the other three learnt their game in Northern Ireland.
There is an elephant in the changing room: football, the national game. It erroneously claimed a golden generation and of all Britain’s major sports this is the one that causes most concern, especially in the wake of the summer’s ponderous outings by England’s age-group teams and a decline in the numbers playing the game at grass-roots level. But then there is the Premier League, for any faults still the most exciting and most watched domestic league.
The audiences attracted for sport in this country, firstly in football but much broader too – 80,000 turned up to watch Paralympic heats last summer – is a key reason why sports want to stage events in Britain. Next up in October is the rugby league World Cup, in 2015 it is the Rugby World Cup.
Sport has never been more universal. In this century 12 countries have won titles at Wimbledon for the first time. At this year’s championships 63 different nationalities were represented across the various draws. Last week an African wore the yellow jersey for the first time. Since hosting the Beijing Olympics, China have become a sporting super power. It is Britain’s only super power and every politician sweating in the royal box yesterday as Andy Murray put the blue back into the Union flag knows it.
Video: Wimbledon fans jubilant at Murray's success