x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Froome, Lions, Murray, Rose ... going great for Britain after Olympics

Effect from infusion of funds by National Lottery and fillip provided by London 2012 bearing results in success of athletes, writes Gary Meenaghan.

Tennis fans hold up a Union flag at Murray Mount. Ben Stansall / AFP
Tennis fans hold up a Union flag at Murray Mount. Ben Stansall / AFP

When considering sporting success, it is fair to conclude that Great Britain has been guilty of false advertising for much of the past century. A more fitting name for the country could have been Mediocre Britain or Also-Ran Britain. Or even Forever Capable of Clutching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory Britain.

Yet if the past 12 months are any indication, unprecedented performances by British athletes at last summer's London Olympics may have provided the catalyst for a re-establishment of the adjective. Britain is looking Great once more.

Sports that not too long ago seemed to consistently drown British athletes in a deluge of disappointment are now being conquered by these same sportsmen and women, who have risen from the ashes not The Ashes; that battle has yet to be formally won to become national heroes.

Two successive Tour de France winners, a joint US Open and Wimbledon champion, a triumphant Lions, a US Open-winning golfer … it is almost as if the Olympics showed Britons that winning can be fun and the idea caught on like checkered shirts and flat caps.

Yet is patriotic pride really the reason behind Britain becoming - whisper it - a nation of winners?

Certainly Andy Murray credited the success of his compatriots for providing added motivation ahead of his own Olympic tennis final victory last summer.

"The night before was the night when Jessica Ennis, Mo Farah and Greg Rutherford won their gold medals," Murray told the BBC recently.

"It was a huge inspiration, gave me some momentum going into my final, and I went on to play probably the best match of my career."

That breakthrough title banished the albatross from Murray's muscular neck and provided him the self-belief he had earlier lacked.

The following month in New York, he became the first British male during the open era to win a grand slam singles tournament.

His nation-uniting victory at Wimbledon this month was the first by a British male at the All England Club in 77 years.

Murray is not the only athlete to end long-standing historical hoodoos. Add to the list Justin Rose, who last month became the first English golfer to win the US Open since 1970; a first series victory in 16 years for the British & Irish Lions in Australia and Sir Bradley Wiggins's victory last year amid the French mountains to bring Britain an overall Tour de France winner for the first time.

Such an upturn in a country's sporting fortunes is no mere coincidence and neither is it solely the after effects of a successful Olympics.

According to Dr Neil Carter from the International Centre for Sports History and Culture at De Montfort University in Leicester, England, a very simple reason is behind Britain's recent run of remarkable results.

"The success can be summed up in three words: The National Lottery," Carter said. "That has been a very important factor and the foundation for everything."

Since the inception of the National Lottery in 1994, Camelot Group has raised more than £30 billion (Dh168bn) to develop health, education, charitable causes, environment, sport, arts and heritage.

In 2010, sport's direct share was raised from 16 per cent to 20 per cent. In total, British sport has seen more than £4.8bn pumped into it in the past two decades.

"The National Lottery arrived in 1994, but it wasn't really until 2000 at the Sydney Olympics that we saw the first signs of its impact," Carter said. "In some ways, you could pinpoint the start of the success to Jason Queally winning the gold medal in cycling in Sydney. Before that, Britain struggled because it didn't really have much state investment in sport at a national level.

"Amateurism died out in the 1960s, but its legacy was still ongoing up until the 1990s. You could see that amateurism - the governing bodies were the ones who had the power to run the sports, but some of them didn't want much state intervention.

"Gradually, because of competition, especially in light of the Cold War, there was a movement for state intervention and this culminated in the National Lottery, the government's intervention to improve sport at an international level."

Five Summer Games have been held since the lottery was launched, and while Atlanta 1996 was the nation's sporting nadir, managing just 15 medals to finish an all-time low of 36th in the medal table, the country has gone on to gradually improve at each subsequent Games. In London, Britain finished with 65 medals to place third, the country's best medal haul since the 1908 Olympics which were, call it coincidence, also held in London.

Yet lottery funding cannot be the reason behind Murray's success.

The Scot is an anomaly in that he is the only world-class British tennis player. There is no swollen group of trained and talented British tennis standout.

Murray, the world No 2, needs to look as low as 247th in the ATP rankings before he finds a compatriot.

Tim Henman, the former British No 1, said the problem goes deeper.

"In the schools, when these athletes are seven, eight or nine years old, it will be the same group of kids that make up the sports teams," Henman said during a trip to the UAE capital for Abu Dhabi Summerfest. "Whether it's football, rugby, cricket, netball, swimming, athletics, whatever. It will be the same kids that are the best at all those sports. The challenge for tennis is to funnel some of those kids, some of the best athletes, towards tennis. We don't do a good job at that.

"We lose all those athletes to all the other sports and then the ones that end up playing tennis are not the best athletes. So, it doesn't necessarily matter what training or coaching you are going to give them, because they are probably not going to be good enough. That is the slightly ruthless, blunt explanation."

Murray was the catalyst for his own success. While competing in the European Under 16 Junior Team Championship, he saw a young Rafael Nadal training with the former world No 1 Carlos Moya on clay. Murray was being forced to train with his brother at the local school while in Scotland, so he called his mother, Judy.

"I want to go to Spain," he urged her, emphasising: "I need to go to Spain."

Carter added: "Murray is freakish in that respect, because he has very little to do with the infrastructure of British sports."

The best example of the benefits of investment and long-term strategy in Britain arguably can be found in cycling. An initiative in 1998 created a playground-to-podium career path, with the intention to not only earmark the best potential riders, but also promote grassroots interest and membership growth.

Last year, British Cycling celebrated 16 gold medals at the Olympics, a first British winner of the Tour de France, a million more people inspired to take up cycling and 50 per cent year-on-year membership growth. Chris Froome's victory in Paris on Sunday merely illuminated that success farther. The funnel effect that Henman craves for tennis is already in full flow in cycling.

Sir Dave Brailsford, the performance director of British Racing, told The Guardian last year that while growing up in north Wales, cycling was once seen as a "very odd thing to do".

"When it came to the point where I wanted to try to do it seriously, the only way you could do it was to go and live abroad," he said. "To go from that, from what really was a minority sport with 10-mile time trials on a Tuesday night, to where the sport currently stands in British culture now, is remarkable."

Each British sport evidently has its own challenge to tussle with and as memories of the Olympics inevitably wane, the torch will be passed to the current generation of athletes to inspire the next. The benefits of belief are already evident.

"It's not just the Olympics, it's the Lions, the Tour de France, it's so much," Henman said. "I was watching the Ashes and, for me, there's definitely a sense of momentum and confidence in British sport just now.

"We are on a real roll at the moment and we have to keep it going."

Carter added: "The Olympics tends to be a good indicator of a country's sporting prowess, and at the moment, the way the resources are being pumped into British sport, that relationship is important in maintaining [Britain's] place in the sporting pecking order.

"With the funding there and the confidence that has emerged on the back of the Olympics success there, everything seems to be in place."


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