Rio 2016: Britain emerges as superpower

The new sporting superpower

It’s official: Great Britain has achieved its best performance at the Olympics in over a century. It triumphed over China by ending the Rio de Janeiro games second in the overall medal table.

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On Sunday, China steadily ran out of medal hopes and was unable to catch Britain which ended the games with 27 gold — one ahead of the Asian country.

The USA topped the medal table with 46 golds, while hosts Brazil earned seven golds to finish in a creditable 12th place.

The last British medal was earned by the art student-turned-boxer Joe Joyce. He could only manage silver after losing to France’s Tony Yoka in the final of the men’s super heavyweight division.

That meant that British athletes signed off with 67 medals, two more than total haul at the London 2012 and its best ever away games. Liz Nicholl, chief executive of UK Sport, the government-backed body that funds the country’s elite athletes, told reporters in Rio that the country had become a “sporting superpower.”

British Olympic performances had reached a nadir in Atlanta 1996, when it managed just a single gold.

It has taken two decades of funding, a ruthless focus on sports that offer multiple medal chances, and a crop of exceptional athletes to transform the nation into an Olympic titan.

The money matters. British athletes competing in Rio have received £350m to support their training during this Olympic cycle, more than their London 2012 predecessors, who were given about £314m. Despite strains on the public finances, then Chancellor George Osborne announced a 29 per cent increase in funding for UK Sport during the spending review last November. If maintained, this should ensure that current levels of funding for elite athletes continue to Tokyo 2020.

Team GB Mo Farah celebrates his second gold in Rio after winning the 5,000m.  Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on August 20, 2016. CAP/CAM ©Andre Camara/Capital Pictures

This has led to Ms Nicholl to suggest that the haul from the next games in four years could be even larger. It would be quite some feat to retain some of the Olympic titles earned at these games, such as those won by Britain’s women in hockey, its first gold in the event. Captain Kate Richardson-Walsh was granted the honour of carrying Union Jack at the closing ceremony.

Why uncompetitive basketball remains a slam dunk at the Olympics

During the first quarter of the men’s basketball final, Serbia was leading the USA 14-11 and a tight match looked possible. By the end of the half, the US had blown away to a 20 point lead. They eventually strolled to a 96-66 victory. In truth, harder matches had come earlier in the tournament, particularly against France in the preliminary stage and Spain in the semi final. Still, Team USA has not lost a game in the Olympic basketball since 2004.

That statistic is an indictment on basketball’s continued presence on the Olympic roster. The sport has been in the games since 1936, but only 24 years ago were professional players allowed to play. That suited the US which had won bronze in 1988 and wanted to pick a strong team, as well as American broadcasters who saw the chance to showcase the NBA’s stars to the world. The change was a boon to the Barcelona 1992 games when Michael Jordan led the vaunted “Dream Team” to the title.

Since then, the dream has faded. The NBA’s two best players — LeBron James and Stephen Curry — did not make the trip to Rio, This US team was led by Kevin Durant instead, the power forward who looked disinterested throughout the tournament until the last game when he dominated weak opposition to score 30 points.

At Rio, basketball matches were played almost every day and required a whole arena dedicated to the sport. The International Olympic Committee has said it wants to cut costs for future host cities, but does not appear to be willing to touch anything American broadcasters care about. Instead, the games will expand further in four years’ time, with new sports including climbing, surfing, skateboarding, karate. US favourite baseball and softball competitions also re-enter the games.

It is hard to imagine that continued blowouts like USA’s victory on Sunday will hold interest for the average US basketball fan. They will have spent the weeks before the games watching the thrilling NBA finals, where a James-led Cleveland Cavaliers beat a Curry-led Golden State Warriors. That was basketball at its best. But the Olympics will tolerate hosting a sporting sideshow if it believes there are dollars to be made.

Naked anger

How the games matter to other sports could be witnessed by watching Mongolia’s Greco-Roman wrestling coaches. They were jubilant at the end of a bronze medal bout between Ganzorig Mandakhnaran and Uzbekistan’s Ikhtiyor Navruzov. The scores suggested their man had won, the coaches stormed the mat to celebrate holding the Mongolian flag aloft.

But they had not realised that the judges had given a penalty point to the Uzbek wrestler, enough for him to be awarded the victor. The Mongolian team attempted to challenge the decision, but were told they could not. In protest, both men stripped off their clothes — one down to his boxer shorts — slamming their garments on to the mat.

Security officials had to escort the semi-naked men from the arena. Their games over, the wrestling coaches appeared to have begun packing their bags for the long flight to Ulaanbaatar.

What the FT saw

Over the course of 17 days of competition, FT reporters have witnessed 18 sports in Rio. Viewers around the world will have their favourite moments. Among the best witnessed live include: the Great British men’s track cycling sprint team led by Sir Bradley Wiggins chasing down Australia in the velodrome; Brazil conquering its football demons to beat Germany in the men’s final at a raucous Maracana; gymnast Simone Biles and her extraordinary tumbling on the floor; Mo Farah falling in the 5000 metre final only to get up and produce his trademark “kick” to retain his Olympic title; swimmer Katie Ledecky smashing the 800m freestyle world record with opponents half a pool’s length behind; and Michael Phelps’s tearful farewell following his 23rd and last Olympic gold in the pool.

Away from the sport, the Rio Games have been among the most organisationally challenged in years. There were no huge disasters; doubts as to whether Brazilian security services were ready for a terrorist attack proved unfounded. Instead, there were minor issues, such as a lack of food and drink in stadiums, to potentially disastrous ones, such as when an overhead television camera crashed to the ground, causing at least two spectators to be injured.

The safety of athletes and delegates was a concern throughout, with a spate of robberies and petty thefts away from the main Olympic venues. Doubts will remain about whether the games were clean from the use of performance-enhancing drugs, given the doping scandals that overshadowed the run-up to Rio. An abiding image will be the rows of empty seats in stadiums. The lasting sound may be Brazilian crowds booing opponents to home athletes.

These problems have meant that the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the governing body of the games, is set on avoiding “risks” when choosing where the games is held in future, according to people familiar with its leadership. If true, that is a bad omen for Olympic movement. It would end hopes of trimming back a bloated event so it can reach new territories.

Next year, the IOC will choose between Paris, Los Angeles, Rome and Budapest as the host city for the 2024 games, three of which have already held the games. The American and French cities look the best bets, with future events also looking unlikely to be taken to emerging markets.

Other stories were a distraction to the endeavours of athletes. When four US swimmers including gold medallist Ryan Lochte exaggerated a story of being robbed at gunpoint, they learned that the Brazilian police were more professional than many had been led to believe. The same might be said for Pat Hickey, Europe’s top official, who remains in a high-security jail facing charges of being involved in an illegal ticket sales. Mr Hickey denies all the allegations.

Despite all of this, for those attending, the games were joyous. Around Rio, bars and restaurants were packed with locals sharing a communal Olympics experience, watching events together on television — if not always at the venues. The national pride at pulling off the games was palpable. There is hope that they become the symbolic start of a period of Brazilian renewal.

And the action was spectacular. The emotional high of Rio 2016 was a half-hour span at the Olympic stadium last Sunday, when Wayde van Niekerk unexpectedly broke Michael Johnson’s “unbreakable” 400m world record. A few minutes later, Usain Bolt secured his place in history by winning the 100m for the third consecutive time. A star was born, another lit up the games for the final time. Those historic sprints should play over the closing credits of Rio 2016.

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