The lonely route to success

Pat Butcher looks back over British performances and sees that success has been the result of individual excellence rather than national strategy
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The success of British sportsmen and women through the 100-year history of the modern Olympic movement follows little pattern. For the most part, it has seemed to depend largely on the emergence of an individual talent rather than the production-line system pursued by the American universities, and perfected by the former Eastern bloc nations. There is nothing wrong with that, though it is a pity successive governments here have not put more money into sport to help Britain achieve more success.

In common with many other international organisations, sporting or otherwise, the British were not terribly inclined to join in the Olympic spirit originally. There were only eight Britons in Athens in 1896, but they managed to compete in nine sports, winning three gold medals, three silvers and a bronze, half of those in now discontinued events, like one-hand weightlifting.

The proximity of Paris in 1900 and the awareness of the influence that Britain had had on the Olympic movement engendered more interest. And with 17 golds (including football, rugby and cricket) out of 35 medals, only the hosts and the United States won more. The drawn-out, poorly organised Games in distant St Louis were a walk-over for the hosts. The Americans won 80 gold, 86 silver and 72 bronze, against a combined total of 46 medals for the other 11 competing nations (two of which won nothing).

Britain reached its apogee, socially as well some might claim, in 1908, winning across the board 56 gold, 50 silver and 39 bronze. The United States were a distant second, 23-12-12, and the rest nowhere. But these were the Games when criticism of home judging was at its fiercest and the British felt obliged to issue a pamphlet rebutting the charges.

The next 20 years saw Britain maintain a place in the top five in the medals tables, but there was a drop with increased competition during the mid-war years to around 10th, while the Wembley Games of 1948 were indicative of how much Britain had suffered during the Second World War, doing arguably worse than any host nation of the century with just 3 gold, 14 silver and 6 bronze medals.

Helsinki in 1952 was even worse, with just one gold medal, for the show jumpers. This was the first Games that the Soviet Union contested, and subsequent Olympics devolved into an alternative "Cold War" between them and the United States, with Britain holding steady around 10th with as few as three golds out of between 20 and 30 medals overall.

At the individual level, the emergence of Jonathan Edwards as world record holder and likely winner of the triple jump in Atlanta exemplifies the random nature of much of Britain's medal success throughout the century. While the Americans can lay claim to consistent domination of certain events - 100 metres, high hurdles, pole vault - and Kenya has recently annexed the steeplechase, British success has been largely down to highly talented individuals like Mary Rand and Lynn Davies, who won both long jumps in Tokyo in 1964, and Daley Thompson, the sole Briton to have won the decathlon (twice). Likewise, Chris Boardman's leap forward in the cycling pursuit in Barcelona.

Similarly, Tessa Sanderson's javelin gold in 1984 was also a first throwing medal for a British woman. Coincidentally, Fatima Whitbread's bronze in the same event demonstrated another trend - that of performers often arriving in pairs. Coe and Ovett were another example.

On the other hand, the athletic club structure in Britain, concentrating on cross-country and middle-distance running, has contributed largely to the 11 gold medals won in the men's 800m and 1500m events (including four consecutive 800s from 1920 to 1932) and three in the steeplechase. What is extraordinary, given the climate, is that Britons could have won three 100m golds, Harold Abrahams (1924), Allan Wells (1980) and Linford Christie (1992).

With only two boxers going to Atlanta, the 12 golds across the century are unlikely to be augmented. But Redgrave and Pinsent can add to consistent rowing success. Shooting, swimming, show jumping, judo, modern pentathlon and sailing have thrown up the occasional British champions, but such is the marginal nature of these pursuits (through no fault of their own) the medals are usually won before we knew we even had a chance.


Figure after date denotes Britain's final position in the medals table (for example, Britain finished fifth in the medals table in Athens in 1896).

Figure in brackets after the total of British medals is the total number of medals awarded at the Games (for example, Britain won seven of 121 medals awarded in Athens in 1896).

Percentage figure is the percentage of medals won by Britons (for example, Britain won 5.79 per cent of medals awarded in Athens in 1896).


G S B Total %

176 225 219 620 (10,417) 5.95

ATHENS 1896: 5th

G S B Total %

3 3 1 7 (121) 5.79

PARIS 1900: 3rd

G S B Total %

17 8 10 35 (265) 13.21

ST LOUIS 1904: 8th

G S B Total %

1 1 0 2 (280) 0.71

United States won 242 (86.43 per cent) of the medals

LONDON 1908: 1st

G S B Total %

56 50 39 145 (323) 44.89

Best British performance in percentage terms ever

STOCKHOLM 1912: 3rd

G S B Total %

10 15 16 41 (300) 13.67

ANTWERP 1920: 3rd

G S B Total %

15 15 13 43 (437) 9.84

PARIS 1924: 4th

G S B Total %

9 13 12 34 (383) 8.88

AMSTERDAM 1928: 11th

G S B Total %

3 10 7 20 (326) 6.13

LOS ANGELES 1932: 9th

G S B Total %

4 7 5 16 (345) 4.64

BERLIN 1936: 10th

G S B Total %

4 7 3 14 (379) 3.69

LONDON 1948: 12th

G S B Total %

3 14 6 23 (413) 5.57

HELSINKI 1952: 18th

G S B Total %

1 2 8 11 (461) 2.39

MELBOURNE 1956: 8th

G S B Total %

6 7 11 24 (471) 5.1

ROME 1960: 12th

G S B Total %

2 6 12 20 (462) 4.33

TOKYO 1964: 10th

G S B Total %

4 12 2 18 (504) 3.57

MEXICO CITY 1968: 10th

G S B Total %

5 5 3 13 (524) 2.48

MUNICH 1972: 12th

G S B Total %

4 5 9 18 (600) 3

MONTREAL 1976: 13th

G S B Total %

3 5 5 13 (612) 2.12

MOSCOW 1980: 9th

G S B Total %

5 7 9 21 (631) 3.39

LOS ANGELES 1984: 10th

G S B Total %

5 11 21 37 (671) 5.51

SEOUL 1988: 12th

G S B Total %

5 10 9 24 (739) 3.25

BARCELONA 1992: 13th

G S B Total %

5 3 12 20 (815) 2.45


Breakdown of British gold medals

Athletics 17, Rowing 6, Swimming 5, Sailing 5, Equestrian 5, Shooting 3, Boxing 3, Modern pentathlon 1, Cycling 1, Hockey 1, Fencing 1

1948 (3)

Rowing (double sculls): Richard Burnell and Bertrand Bushnell

Rowing (coxless pairs): John Wilson and William Laurie

Sailing (Swallow class): Stewart Morris and David Bond)

1952 (1)

Equestrian (showjumping team event): Harry Llewellyn, Wilfred White, Douglas Stewart 1956 (6)

3,000m steeplechase: Chris Brasher

100m backstroke: Judith Grinham

Boxing (lightweight): Dick McTaggart

Boxing (flyweight): Terry Spinks

Fencing (individual foil): Gillian Sheen

Equestrian (three-day event team): Frank Weldon, A. Laurence Rook, Albert Hill

1960 (2)

50km walk: Don Thompson

200m breaststroke: Anita Lonsbrough

1964 (4)

20km walk: Ken Matthews

Long jump: Lynn Davies, Mary Rand

800m: Ann Packer

1968 (5)

400m hurdles: David Hemery

Sailing (Flying Dutchman): Rodney Pattison and Iain Macdonald-Smith

Equestrian (three-day event team): Derek Allhusen, Richard Meade and Reuben Jones

Shooting (trap): John Braithwaite

Boxing (middleweight): Chris Finnegan

1972 (4)

Pentathlon: Mary Peters

Sailing (Flying Dutchman): Rodney Pattison and Chris Davies

Equestrian (three-day event): Richard Meade

Equestrian (three-day event team): Richard Meade, Mary Gordon-Watson, Bridget Parker

1976 (3)

200m breaststroke - David Wilkie

Modern pentathlon (team event): Adrian Parker, Robert Nightingale, Jeremy Fox

Sailing (International Tornado): Reg White and John Osborn)

1980 (5)

100m: Allan Wells; 800m: Steve Ovett

1500m: Seb Coe; Decathlon: Daley Thompson

100m breaststoke: Duncan Goodhew

1984 (5)

1500m: Seb Coe; Decathlon: Daley Thompson

Javelin: Tessa Sanderson

Rowing (coxed fours): Martin Cross, Richard Budgett, Andrew Holmes, Steven Redgrave, Adrian Ellison

Shooting (small-bore rifle): Malcolm Cooper

1988 (5)

100m breaststroke: Adrian Moorhouse

Rowing (coxless pair): Redgrave and Holmes

Sailing (Star): Michael McIntyre and Bryn Vaile

Shooting (small-bore rifle): Malcolm Cooper

Hockey: Men

1992 (5)

100m: Linford Christie

400m hurdles: Sally Gunnell

Rowing (coxed pairs): Searle brothers, Gary Herbert

Rowing (coxless pairs): Steven Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent

Cycling (4,000m ind pursuit): Chris Boardman