It is now almost nine months since the curtain fell on Rio with the incredible triumph of Great Britain. In the 31 st Games, marked by controversy –ranging from unfinished facilities and health concerns all the way to the Russian doping scandal– Team GB managed to shine through.
In their most successful Games since over a century (since 1908, to be exact), British athletes brought home an astounding total of 67 medals. Great Britain thus broke an Olympic record of its own: it became the first country to surpass its medal tally at the Olympics immediately following the Games that it hosted – as in the London 2012 Games Team GB won a total of 65 medals.
We are still a good couple of years away from Tokyo 2020 – and mere months from the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games – yet it is important to remember the distinguished athletes who made us proud all year round and not just in the few days that comprise the actual Games. To be fair, it seems that the Games – although always popular with athletics enthusiasts – are gaining increasing attention with the more mainstream audience. For example, there is even an emerging market in betting, which is not reserved to the classics like football or horse racing anymore – nowadays it is easy to find tips on all Olympic sports, ranging from cycling to swimming and from winter sports to athletics in general. Yet this increasing popularity does not necessarily translate to increased funding for our Olympics team.
Granted, professional athletes these days rely more than ever on sources other than their respective governments in order to be able to afford being devoted to their craft. Michael Phelps’s total endorsements were estimated to $12 million in 2014 while Usain Bolt is – unsurprisingly– the highest paid athlete in the history of his sport, earning an estimated $32.5 million in 2016. It is true that most professional stars make the biggest part of their earnings from appearances, prize money and sponsors, while there is also money to be made in advertising.
Yet not all professional athletes share this kind of spotlight that makes similar sources of income possible – it is mainly the superstars who warrant such attention. The rest, and especially emerging athletes, still rely on government funding in order to be able to train properly – and become future medallists.
But with cuts in sports funding – in fact, seven sports are set to receive zero funding in the four years leading up to Tokyo 2020– that render several athletes unable to cope with the expenses, the future looks grim for Team GB. It feels almost as if our athletes are being punished for collectively achieving the Rio triumph – what more could a country ask from its national team in order to properly care for them?
So it is important that we as a nation remember their feats every day if we are to see them repeated –and even surpassed – by future Olympians, maybe training right now in underfunded facilities somewhere in the country. To make the point clearer, here are 3 of the most notable Gold medal winners in the Rio Olympics, who truly personify how a strong national athletics culture can help propel undiscovered talent forward.
The Golden Laura Kenny
Born prematurely with a collapsed lung, Laura Trott (now Laura Kenny, after having married fellow cyclist and Olympian Jason Kenny last September) was diagnosed with asthma from an early age. Under doctors’ advice, she took up the sport in order to learn how to better regulate her breathing and battle her asthma.
Kenny tried trampolining first before she had to quit due to respiratory problems. Luckily, she was raised in a family that was no stranger to sports. Her older sister, Emma Trott – a former road racing cyclist herself – prompted her to try cycling and Laura gave it a go. At first, she used to cycle together with her sister and her mother – who did so to lose weight. Then, she moved on to train professionally and enter the British professional athlete scheme. And the rest is history.
Today she prides in four Olympic gold medals under her belt, having won both the omnium and the team pursuit at both the London 2012 and Rio 2016 games. Kenny is the most successful female track cyclist in Olympic history and the most decorated British Olympic female competitor in any sport. She and her then fiancé (and now husband), fellow cyclist and Gold medallist Jason Kenny, have been dubbed the ‘golden couple’ by the British press – they have won an aggregate of five gold medals in Rio, reaching a total of ten between them.
From Poverty to Stardom: The Story of Mo Farah
Somalia-born distance runner Mo Farah is bent on being a record breaker. He holds the European record for the 1,500m, 10,000m, half marathon and two miles and the European indoor record for 5,000m, the British record for the 5,000m and British indoor record in the 3,000m, while he also holds the current indoor world record for the two miles. Not bad for 34-year- old fan favourite – who is maybe equally well known for his playful signature Mobot celebration move.
Having won nine global titles, Farah is the most decorated athlete in British athletics history. In Rio, he achieved a double-double by winning Gold medals in both the 5,000m and 10,000m and thus achieved what has been dubbed the ‘quadruple-double’: long-distance doubles at successive Olympics and World Championships (namely in 2012, 2013, 2015 and 2016).
Farah left his native and war-torn Somalia for the UK at the age of 8 (barely speaking English) in order to join his father. Great Britain and its inherent athletics culture allowed his talent to flourish, supporting him in a series of successes for his new homeland – a relationship forged in the training field that culminated in a very appropriate knighthood for Sir Mo Farah at the end of last year. Since Somalia, in contrast to many African countries, lacks a strong running culture, it is doubtful that Farah would have been able to succeed as much or even discover his talent had he stayed in his birth country.
The Great Bradley Wiggins
Bradley Wiggins is a unique combination: he is one of few cyclists to have made the transition from track cycling to road cycling with tremendous success. He is also the only one to have combined winning both World and Olympic championships in both forms of professional cycling. He also won the Tour de France and holds the iconic track hour record of 54,526 km, which he established in June 2015. Need we say more?
Granted, talent-wise he probably takes after his father, Australian cyclist Gary Wiggins. But in terms of learning to love the sport, it was actually his British mother and stepfather who planted the seed. His mother urged him to watch the TV coverage of the individual pursuit final of the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona – where British cyclist Chris Boardman took home the Gold. She later explained that the sport reminded her of Wiggins’ father – who left his family when Wiggins was only two years old. The athlete –affectionately nicknamed ‘Wiggo’ by fans– ended up watching the rest of the Olympics and falling in love with the Games and with cycling in particular.
Having bought his first racing bicycle when he was 12 using his own money, Wiggins moved on to join the Archer Road Club –where his father had been a member decades ago– and made his way into professional cycling gaining sponsorships along the way. In Rio, he became the most decorated British Olympian by winning his seventh medal – a success he soon shared with Sir Chris Hoy, who also achieved his seventh Olympic medal in the same Games. At the end of 2016, Wiggins announced that he would retire from all forms of professional cycling, leaving a great legacy behind for aspiring young cyclists.
YouTube: Bradley Wiggins GOLD Team Pursuit Moments for Team GB #TeamGB
These and countless others are the great success stories of our nation. Yet if we keep down the road of neglecting our athletes and sports facilities, we might soon fall back to appearances like Atlanta, when Team GB finished in the 36th overall position, behind Algeria and Kazakhstan – a disaster that led to the introduction of National Lottery funding. So instead of taking steps back, we really ought to step up and give our sportsmen and – women the wholehearted support they deserve.