Team GB made history by exceeding their ‘home Olympics’ medal haul of four years ago to finish second in the medal table this year in Rio, ahead of powerhouses China, Russia and Germany.
And ParalympicsGB kept up the momentum in the Paralympic Games, again finishing second behind China and a long way ahead of the third place nation.
So what’s the secret of Great Britain’s incredible success and can they maintain this level of achievement in Tokyo?
Touchline gained exclusive access to the movers and shakers behind Great Britain’s success and the people who have responsibility for keeping the momentum going to Tokyo.
Touchline posed the questions to Liz Nicholl – UK Sport CEO and Chelsea Warr UK Sport’s new Director of Performance, Tim Hollingsworth – CEO British Paralympic Association and Mark England – Chef de Mission Team GB Rio 2016.
And just for good measure we have included the views from British Weight Lifting’s Performance Director Tommy Yule, one of the sports looking to build even greater success for Tokyo.
Here is what they said:
Touchline: What was the most pleasing aspect of the Rio 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games from an overall team perspective?
At UK Sport we agreed an incredibly challenging aspirational goal to make history and become the first nation to win more medals at the Olympic and Paralympic games post hosting. To achieve that is quite simply, I believe, the greatest success in the history of British sport. The way all the sports, athletes and the British Olympic Association and British Paralympic Association rose to the challenge of making history and came together to deliver so many inspirational performances when it really mattered is a source of incredible pride.
ParalympicsGB excelled at Rio 2016. It was incredible to watch the team surpass expectations to smash the medal target with a total of 147 medals – including 64 gold – the third highest medal haul in British Paralympic history. The medal target is an obvious but incredibly important measure of success, but it was when we started to look at the range of historic performances across the team that you really begin to appreciate the strength in depth. ParalympicsGB secured medals in 15 of the 19 sports in which we were represented – a feat which equals the record previously held by the USA from Athens 2004 as the greatest ever in one Games. Away from the numbers, there was also a real sense of team spirit in the camp under the superb leadership of Chef de Mission Penny Briscoe, and despite some of the more challenging aspects of the Games, we created a fantastic environment for our athletes to come together as a team and really shine and a really powerful and successful set of programmes for our VIP stakeholders, commercial guests and other wider team members.
Making history. To come away from Rio with more medals than London 2012 and our greatest ever haul at an Olympic Games on foreign soil was an incredible achievement from Britain’s finest Olympic athletes.
Team GB also did something unique in Rio in becoming the first country ever to win more medals at a Games immediately after hosting, following up 65 medals in London with 67 in Rio de Janeiro.
Our goal before the Games was to make history and inspire the nation through the power of Olympic sport and I firmly believe the team delivered on that aspiration.
Most pleasing was to see the how the development of the athletes played out in the Olympic and Paralympic environment. There were many examples, from good decision making during final preparation, dealing with the media to developing new relationships with the BOA support staff. Faced with new challenges the athletes showed great character to deal with any situation and remain on track to achieve their goals.
Were there any particular events or sports that you felt ‘over-achieved’ on the basis of performance and targets?
Clearly, it was fantastic to see the majority of the sports executing under pressure to realise their full medal potential and deliver these historic results. Some of the sports, including diving and para canoeing, surprised even themselves by exceeding the top end of the target range they had agreed with us. Having said that, what made Rio so special were the countless milestone moments where sports and their athletes re-wrote history whether it was Max Whitlock winning two gold medals in an afternoon when GB had never won a Gymnastics gold in its history to Dame Sarah Storey becoming the most decorated British female Paralympian of all time. The list goes on and on and is testament to the strength of our high performance system and the meticulous Games time planning and support provided by the British Olympic and Paralympic Associations.
Rather than ‘over achieved’ I would say our sports created performance plans which gave athletes the very best chance of succeeding by peaking at the right time. In that context success was not an accident. Nonetheless there were some sports that did really maximise their potential and thrived in Rio, including Wheelchair Tennis which won six medals and produced an all-British final with Gordon Reid pipping Alfie Hewett to gold in the men’s singles, and Archery which scored a historic 1-2-3 in the women’s W1 – a feat that hasn’t been achieved by either Team GB or ParalympicsGB in more than 20 years. At the Lagoa, our Rowers won medals in all four classes, the first nation ever to do so at a Paralympic Games. In fact, all of our female athletes won gold at that particular venue, whether in Rowing or Canoe, which made its Games debut. These performances and more truly boast strength in depth when it came to the medal haul.
There were many incredible performances from our sports in Rio and this is testament to the hard work of the athletes and their support staff. It was great to see sports leave Rio with their best ever Games, with diving, gymnastics, taekwondo, and triathlon all returning having enjoyed record hauls in Rio; and Rowing, Sailing, Cycling, and Triathlon topping their respective sports individual medal table
A number of our sports did exceed their UK Sport medal target but, rather than over-achieving, their successes were richly deserved and the result of years of forensic planning and meticulous preparation to peak at the Games.
What do you attribute the amazing success of the teams’ performances at Rio 2016 to?
A significant factor has been the National Lottery funding. The sustained strategic investment since 1997 has allowed us to build the high performance system that is the envy of the world.
As we all know money doesn’t guarantee success – it’s a people business and how you use the money is key; it’s allowed us to invest in attracting, developing and retaining world class coaches, erformance leaders and practitioners who know how and continue to do the basics exceptionally well, while also embracing impactful innovations in sports science, medicine and technology, and make the money work hard to deliver success.
We had absolute clarity and belief in our mission, to top the London 2012 medal haul, which helped the whole system align and unite behind a shared goal. It helped UK Sport focus and make tough decisions where we had to.
This also fostered great collaboration and partnership with the British Olympic and Paralympic Associations, who created world class Games time environments, allowing our athletes to excel like never before. There was no doubt our athletes were the best prepared of any competing in Rio this summer.
All in all partnerships are key to any success and no more so than what has been achieved in Rio. We are proud of how we have worked in partnership with the sports, the British Olympic Association and the British Paralympic Association, the Home Country Sport Councils and Institutes and our commercial partners such as Sportscover who bring expertise and added value to our system.
National Lottery Funding is absolutely crucial in supporting our high performance system and developing our most talented athletes to be the best in the world, ensuring that we send the most competitive team of athletes to the Games. UK Sport and our NGBs also have a huge level of experience and staff that have an unbeatable understanding of Paralympic sport and what our athletes need in order to succeed. It is genuinely strategic.
This, combined with the BPA’s ambition to be ‘best prepared’, either through our preparation camp in Belo Horizonte or the extensive support that we put in place for the athletes on the team, meant we could go the extra mile to ensure that our preparations were second to none. We collectively spent four years preparing for 14 days. It was worth it.
First and foremost, this is down to the dedication, hard work and extraordinary talent that our Olympic athletes have shown in the run up to Rio 2016 and at the Games themselves.
At the British Olympic Association we leave no stone unturned in our mission to create a world-class environment for our athletes to perform at their best at the Olympic Games. This includes everything from the creation of an unrivalled pre-Games preparation camp in Belo Horizonte, recruiting the finest support personnel and even the small home-from-home touches in the Olympic Village that help athletes adapt at the Games.
You can also trace the success back 20 years to the creation of the UK Sport and the distribution of National Lottery funding to help Olympic and Paralympic sport. Since then we have seen our athletes increase Team GB’s medal haul at every Olympic Games since Atlanta 1996, a feat unrivalled by our peers.
I think the amazing success can be attributed to the whole team and the accountability that exists and ensures performance environments are created in which multiple people with different but relevant skill sets and experiences, including coaches and support staff, continually think about performance and ways to improve it. There appears to be little, if any room for complacency and an enormous appetite for challenging the status quo to achieve positive results.
Can you hope and plan to maintain or exceed this level of performance? Is this entirely dependent on the levels of funding?
At UK Sport we are constantly evolving our approach to keep us ahead of the rest of the world and do believe there is still room for improvement in our high performance system so Rio doesn’t have to be the pinnacle for British Olympic and Paralympic sport.
One thing that remains fairly constant though is that we know what it takes to win and this sustained strategic investment of National Lottery and Exchequer income is absolutely crucial to maintaining the inspirational success of British athletes. The Government’s commitment to a 29 per cent increase in Exchequer funding for the Tokyo cycle was recognition of the success of our system but we are still subject to fluctuations in National Lottery income so it is vital people continue to play the National Lottery to maintain the current levels of success. The high performance environment is becoming ever more competitive and we must not lose a moment in our race to stay ahead that is why sports had already prepared their business cases for Tokyo, 6 months before Rio 2016, so that we can all hit the ground running.
It will undoubtedly be tough to maintain or exceed the performance from this Games – although we said that about the last! Funding is key and crucial to the success of the high performance system that underpins the journey to the Paralympic Games. But it is not the only variable. We can always get smarter and better at what we do. We will review our operations in Rio to learn from them and improve on them for Tokyo. Rio 2016 will have provided some of our athletes with greater motivation for the Tokyo cycle, and inspired others to get involved. The development of new talent will be
crucial in supporting our performance in 2020. Equally we know that 55% of medallists in Rio were at their first Games and 30% were under 23 years old so much of the team that succeeded in Rio will still be in place.
It’s very early to be discussing levels of performance in Tokyo already but what we can confirm is that the British Olympic Association is already well underway with our plans to create a world-class environment for our ‘class of 2020’.
We have already visited Tokyo on a number of occasions, with the most recent visit just last month, and are establishing early plans for our pre-Games training camp in Japan. We work very closely with each of the sporting National Governing Bodies throughout the four-year cycle to ensure all their needs are met within the environment, and all the athletes can go into the Games able to compete at their very best.
We do plan to exceed levels of performance in Rio and every confidence we can take the sport and its lifters to real success on the Olympic platform. Although funding helps, our future results are not entirely dependent on the levels of that support – a significant factor is based on achieving greater alignment and clarity over what is possible and the processes and commitment required to make progress towards your objectives.
Have you yet decided on the targets for Pyeongchang & Tokyo?
When we made our investment decisions for Pyeongchang we were clear that we expected to beat our Sochi medal haul and the sports are telling us they are confident they can achieve this. Following the breakthrough games in Sochi where we equalled a best ever Olympic medal haul including the first medal on snow and followed that with our best performance at the Paralympics for 30 years, UK Sport made the decision to double investment in winter sports for Pyeongchang and beyond to ensure we build on that success.
In terms of Tokyo we will announce our investment decisions in December based on what the sports are telling us is possible in 2020. In high performance sport it’s all about setting truly challenging goals to galvanise and inspire the system after the historic performances in Rio. What excites us most is we know there are still areas we can improve upon as we build towards Tokyo 2020.
No! It is much too early for such detail and indeed we don’t yet know the landscape in which we will be operating. As before, UK Sport will set the formal medal target for the team, based on their funding levels and investment strategy, and the BPA will equally state on the back of that our ambition for each Games. The key thing we can say now is we will be aiming to be up there with the World’s best as standards in Paralympic sport continue to rise in both Winter and Summer sports. We are very proud of our position as a world leading Paralympic nation and have no intention to give it up.
Yes. We are determined to improve on Rio, where 17 year old Rebekah Tiler was 10th in the Women’s 69kg class and Ali Jawad won a silver and Zoe Newson a bronze in the Para-lifting. Ideally in Tokyo we will be looking to medal in Weight Lifting, although our agreed target is a top 6 to 1 medal and then achieve a further 1 to 2 medals in Powerlifting.
We have seen a tremendous rise in popularity of the Paralympics. Do you think that this will continue?
After London 2012 I said that we were still in the foothills of this journey rather than the summit and whilst London surpassed expectations, the progression from there to Sochi 2014 and Rio 2016 showed that it was not London 2012 that made the Paralympics special, but rather vice versa. There is something unique about Paralympic sport that has the potential to capture the public’s imagination and attention and this was evident in Rio, where the local ‘carioca’ turned out in force to enjoy the sport and cheer on their compatriots. The Paralympic movement is still growing and developing fast, with nations increasing their investment in Paralympic sport and the IPC driving further increases in the global audience of the Games from the 154 nations which broadcast coverage from Rio. Standards were higher this year across the board compared to London and I have no doubt that will be so again in 2020. There is still plenty of room for the movement to grow, and I am optimistic that Paralympic sport and athletes will continue to captivate and inspire on an international scale in the very same way that we have seen at recent Games.
The exceptional London 2012 Paralympic Games were a pivotal moment in the Paralympic movement with packed venues and millions more watching on television helping to changing the perceptions of British society towards disabled people. We are confident that following the historic achievement of our inspirational athletes who finished second in the Paralympic medal table in Rio with 147 medals there will be a new generation of Paralympic heroes to add to the ranks of those already-established names as we build towards Tokyo and beyond.
The remarkable achievements of our Paralympic athletes, building on the success achieved in London demonstrates the strength and depth of the high performance system we have built in the UK. UK Sport recognised the opportunity but also the increasing competitive nature of Paralympic sport when it increased investment for the Rio cycle by around 45% when compared to London.
This is success by design, long term planning, a commitment from successive governments to Paralympic success and expert people. The world leading games time environment delivered by the British Paralympic Association was also key to ensure our athletes were the best prepared of any nation competing in Rio. UK Sport invests National Lottery funding into Paralympic sports and athletes in exactly the same way as their Olympic counterparts – and as we have seen if you have medal potential then our world class programme will give you the best possible chance to succeed.
I think it will continue as more and more people will re-calibrate what is possible after being inspired by performances at the Paralympics. Additionally, there is much more integration across Olympic and Paralympic programmes so expertise is far more readily available to support future Paralympians and ensure that there is continued success.
What was your personal highlight of Rio 2016?
There are so many wonderful moments to choose from this historic games but I think it has to be Adam Peaty breaking the world record to win Team GB’s first gold medal of Rio 2016. It gave the team some real momentum and the way he delivered his best performance when it mattered most created a sense of excitement and expectation around the whole games. Adam is also a wonderful ambassador for his sport and an inspiration to so many.
This is the hardest, most unfair question of the lot…. There were so many special and wonderful highlights on and off the field of play – my role as Secretary General is truly a privileged one given how broad my involvement at the Games is.
I could name anything from the myriad of medal moments I witnessed, to the fantastic international reception we held at British House to visiting our incredible home in the Athletes’ Village and seeing what a great job the whole team was doing.
If I were to pick one, it should be watching the medal target of 121 being surpassed in the company of the Minister for Sport Tracey Crouch and UK Sport CEO Liz Nicholl.
We all professionally had much at stake in that target and it was special to share it with Liz in particular given her brilliant leadership of the Rio cycle and her seeing ParalympicsGB match the achievement that Team GB had already registered. A fantastic moment.
The highlights were too numerous to mention and probably unfair to single out one sporting moment in particular, but an overwhelming sense of pride and relief that the collective performance of the team was something that had never been seen before, and in beating China in the medal table…wonderful.
My personal highlight was seeing Rebekah Tiler fulfil her current potential and equal a British record on the Olympic stage as a 17-year-old – to finish 10th in her weight category was a fantastic achievement. Equally I was delighted to see both Ali and Zoe pick up medals and I am sure all three have much to offer in years to come.
Away from Weight Lifting, I thought Mo Farrah was outstanding yet again and you cannot of course forget the phenomenal feats of Usain Bolt, who lit up the whole games with his performances.