By the end of Monday night, Great Britain’s Olympic team had secured 18 gold medals, and 11 each of silver and bronze. The team now has a very real chance of surpassing its outstanding performance at the Beijing Games. This continuing success is characterised by very different approaches in two distinct silos of the country’s sporting infrastructure.
Beijing 2008 was the tournament at which Britain burst on to the international track-cycling scene, seemingly from nowhere. The team’s domination was such that it’s now tough to watch an Olympic cycling event and not expect a gold for Britain: testament to the sports national performance director Dave Brailsford building on previous success.
Brailsford recently compared progress in sport to a treadmill: “You can’t stop running and stay on the conveyor belt because you go backwards”, he told the Guardian. Post the awe-inspiring performance at the Chinese Velodrome four years ago, Brailsford started sprinting on that metaphorical treadmill and founded the Team Sky cycling team, targeting the yellow jersey at the Tour de France. We all know how that story ended.
The approach of UK Athletics has been very different. That sport’s relatively disappointing showing in Beijing led to an overhaul of the powers-that-be in the country’s track-and-field bunker. Dutch national Charles van Commenee was brought in – whereupon he quickly stripped away a number of entrenched coaches, installed his own team in their stead and began ruling the program by instilling what former heptathlete Kelly Sotherton (positively) described to the Guardian as “the fear” into everybody.
Public spats with triple-jumper Phillips Idowu and the recruitment of foreign-born athletes to his GB team have increased the public perception of Van Commenee as an uncompromising dictator.
But the Netherlands man cannot be accused of inconsistency: if he fails to win the medals in the Olympic stadium he thinks possible – potentially as much as 15, according to reports – he has pledged to quit his job.
Management ups and downs
Despite a disappointing season – by his vertiginous standards, anyway – that saw him overshadowed by Jamaican teammate Yohan Blake, Bolt proved his superior natural talent by becoming just the second man in history to retain the 100m Olympics title.
The spectre of doping has been raised again by incredible performances in the pool by swimmers from China and the USA. Neither allegation has yet been remotely proven – yet such is the shadow that drugs cast across the Olympics that fans and competitors alike have been left to question the legitimacy of unusually impressive results. A grim sign of the times.