Evening Standard

Moving on: British Rowing’s forward-thinking approach helped Katherine Grainger and they are looking to improve further. Image courtesy of Evening Standard

There is no great mystery about the reasons for British success at this Olympics. Our cyclists do not have magic wheels that are larger than other nations and neither are we using home turf to get an unfair advantage.

The foreign scepticism is partly due to the fact there is always a tendency in this country to try and present success as something that just happens. So, at the height of British power, it was fashionable to say Britain had acquired its empire in a fit of absentmindedness. But then that is hardly surprising in a nation that prides itself on muddling through.

But, far from muddling through, 2012 has been a very calculated operation created by the successful way governing bodies have used Lottery money.

Not all the governing bodies have been as efficient as rowing and cycling. Those sports receive the most Lottery money — £27.3million for rowing, £26m for cycling over four years — and provide templates of how to make golden dreams come true.

Rowing is, arguably, the best example of how British sport can remodel itself. Back in 1989, British Rowing were £50,000 overdrawn, and their greatest athlete, Steve Redgrave, was in rebellious mood, unhappy with the way his sport was run. It was a case of shape up or ship out.

The sport began this shaping up in 1991, four years before John Major started the Lottery. The administrators realised that, to achieve success at elite level, you must develop an elite club structure. This led to a performance centre being set up in Caversham.

Now, while the medallists come from all over the country, all of them live in or around Marlow to make the best use of this facility. This includes Katherine Grainger, who so proudly spoke of her Scottish roots as she finally collected her double sculls gold. This is a bit like how Duncan Fletcher reshaped English cricket and has a touch of how a football or rugby club is run. Indeed Rangers, now starting life again in the Scottish Third Division, would also do well to study the cycling model.

Cycling’s financial problems were even greater than those of rowing and the sport very nearly went bust in the mid-90s. But, so successfully was it reshaped that the new generation of cyclists which emerged found the latest coaching and technology available to them as they powered their way to success. The results in the velodrome may look mysterious to the French but they actually come from very careful planning.

But, if money and organisation equal success, why is there no swimming gold? Swimming in this country gets only a little less Lottery money than rowing or cycling — £25.1m — and also has an efficient governing body. The reasons are complex and, in part, the difference in performance can be traced to the fact that swimming has a greater global reach than either rowing or cycling. New countries are always emerging and, as the Australians who once dominated this sport and had come to London with high hopes discovered, it is not easy to match the Americans. They remain the superpower of this sport.

It is in track and field that Britain faces a very special challenge. London should deliver the eight medals that head athletics coach, Charles van Commenee, set as the team’s target. Indeed super Saturday means he has already exceeded his gold expectations. The more intriguing question is whether we can learn from how Jamaica has used its long-established schools’ programme and grass-roots development of athletics to produce the Usain Bolts of this world.

We need to take up this challenge because, as everyone recognises, while we have brilliant elite athletes, in many of our most successful sports, there is little or no link with schools, particularly state schools.

Rowing and cycling are trying to develop these links. But what we need is a national sports policy which joins up school sports through to the elite level. To do that, we will need to completely reshape arguably what is the most complicated sports structure any country has. It has been tried before and has failed. Not even the success of this Olympics allows me to believe it can be easily done.


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