Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe asserted on the 14th of March that the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo will take place as planned from July to September this year. The Japanese government was intent, for the time being at least, to maintain the veneer of business as usual. But following wave after wave of criticism including from IOC President Thomas Bach and IAAF President Seb Coe, the announcement looked increasingly fanciful. If a final nail in the coffin was even necessary, on the 23rd March, the Canadian, Australian and British Olympic authorities decided to withdraw their teams. Later that day, we had our confirmation: Tokyo 2020 will become Tokyo 2021.
A postponement being secured doesn’t by any means provide organisers, coaching staff, and participating athletes with the certainty they need. As Thomas Bach has stated, there are still ‘many thousands of questions’ that must be addressed.
As if these questions weren’t enough, I can’t help but perceive a further level of uncertainty surrounding our chances in Tokyo. We’re three and a half years down the line from Rio 2016, meaning most of the preparatory phase of the current Olympic and Paralympic cycle is complete. At Rio, Team GB became the first nation to achieve a better medal return in the Olympics after hosting the Games. The consensus, seemingly shared by all except UK Sport itself, is that this will be a very tough act to follow.
Data analysis firm Gracenote aren’t expecting much. The medal haul they predict for Team GB more than compensates for the unexpected upward trajectory from London to Rio. In their ‘Virtual Medal Table’, last updated on 24th February 2020, Great Britain places 7th, behind the United States, China, Russia, the hosts Japan, Australia, and the Netherlands. Their reasoning is simple. The company attributes the sharp downturn to reduced output in the sports that have served us so well in the last three Games– track cycling, rowing, and gymnastics.
It’s true that Team GB’s backbone isn’t looking nearly as sturdy as it once did. In track cycling, Dave Brailsford and Heiko Salzewedel’s innovative philosophy of ‘marginal gains’ secured a generation of dominance for British cycling, but the effect looks to be wearing off. Since winning 6 golds and 12 medals in Rio, the decline in results has been undeniable. A year following Rio, in 2017, our medal tally more than halved to 5, and although an extra silver brought us back up to 6 in 2018, we were back down to 4 in 2019.
Although Team GB have been prone to stagnation in non-Olympic years, there’s usually been a return to full strength the year before a Games. In the light of this trend, the poor performance in Berlin this year was a massive disappointment: another dismal haul of 4 medals. It’s hard to imagine even a team as distinguished as British Cycling conjuring up a further 8 medal winners before the summer. Laura Kenny may have battled on after crashing hard over the unsaddled Canadian Allison Beveridge, but we’re yet to see any signs that she’ll be back to her best in Tokyo. Meanwhile, her husband Jason, a triple gold medallist in Rio, couldn’t inspire anything more than a silver in the men’s team sprint. Moreover, our only gold came in the Women’s points race, an event that isn’t even on the programme for the Olympics.
Our recent rowing performance tells a similar story. Team GB finished in 9th in the medal table at the World Championships last year, behind even Ireland, a team that won just a single silver medal at Rio. This was no anomaly: GB were 8th in 2017, and 12th in 2018.
Two sports where our dominance has traditionally been easy enough to take for granted now look far from dependable. Responding to the ‘shock’ of the Berlin World Track Cycling Championships, Sir Chris Hoy, the embodiment of the extreme efficiency of British Cycling, lamented to BBC Sport that ‘at the moment, the odds are that Britain are not going to dominate in the way they have.’ At least when it comes to the old bastions of British Olympic success, he seems to be capturing the generally gloomy atmosphere in the camp.
But we mustn’t forget that since Beijing 2008, Team GB have been perennial overperformers, if we measure the final medal haul against pre-Olympic projections. Analysis by companies like Gracenote can’t and won’t account for these unexpected victories: in March 2016, five months ahead of the Rio games, they had us on 49 medals, far short of our eventual tally of 67. Predicting an Olympics medal table is a mammoth task, but it seems that Team GB are a particular thorn in the side of the data analysts. Chelsea Warr, UK Sport’s performance director, is ‘quietly confident’ that we can do even better in Tokyo. I can’t blame her.
Though UK Sport’s funding model may be ‘remorseless’, as one Observer Editorial put it during the last Olympics, it would be difficult to deny that it has a long track record of delivering medals in droves. Ever since Atlanta 1996, where ‘The Team of Shame’ finished 36th in the medal table, managing just a single gold won by rowers Matthew Pinsent and Steve Redgrave, successive governments have given the green light to colossal spending, supplemented by National Lottery investment. This time around, it’s no different, with £266 million being allocated to the Tokyo Olympics effort, just shy of the record £274 million splashed out on the Rio cycle.
Naturally, funding on this scale means elite training and elite staff, but above all it means that we can rely on always having athletes in the mix for podium finishes, even when they can’t assert a Bolt or Biles-like dominance over their event. It’s no coincidence that we seem to get more than our fair share of the ostensibly fortuitous, ‘unexpected’ medals that give the Olympics its distinctive charm.
The case of Greg Rutherford’s 2012 long jump gold illustrates this perfectly. He may have titled his 2016 autobiography Unexpected, but as a Commonwealth Games silver medallist and the joint holder of the world-leading distance for 2012, he was hardly your average Joe. In a remarkably tight field, separated by just 20cm in qualification, none of the top 3 qualifiers featured on the podium, and Rutherford seized on the opportunity to take gold, with the shortest winning jump since Munich 1972. Often, simply being there, and being among the best, is enough. That’s something that Team GB has shown time and again that it has the means to achieve. In Rio, Max Whitlock’s ‘unexpected’ Men’s floor victory epitomised this. With the field blown open as favourite and reigning world champion Kenzō Shirai stuttered on three of his six tumbling passes, Whitlock took the crown not by being the frontrunner, but by being the best amongst the chasing pack.
Even if we can’t count on as many favourites as in London or Rio, we can surely hope to engineer more of the ‘unexpected’ medals that have served us so well in previous Games. I’m confident we’ll surpass the Gracenote predictions, but it’s been too bumpy a road for us to replicate the successes of London and Rio. The new events won’t offer a helping hand either: of course, we’re at home in the velodrome, but I can’t see us making much headway in the dojo.
A similar sense of quiet confidence is emanating from the Paralympic camp. Penny Briscoe, Director of Sport at the British Paralympic Association, has noted that although it will be difficult to follow up on the successes of Rio, ‘a games of superlatives’, ‘the current indications are that all of the sports are in a good place.’
There’s plenty of to back these claims up. We’re an established force in the Paralympics, second in the all-time medal table, and our medal tally surged from 120 in London to 147 in Rio, where we were a comfortable second in the absence of Russia. Much like in the Olympics, we’ve also got a track record of overperforming. When ParalympicsGB set a target of 121 medals in 2016, that is, one more medal than what we got in London, it was considered speculative. With hindsight, this looks conservative, and there’s no reason not to expect a similarly impressive showing in Tokyo: funding his actually increased by over £2 million to £75 million, more than we spent on the Athens 2004 Olympic effort.
Of course, there have been bumps in the road in Paralympic preparations as well, with recurring injuries forcing Georgie Hermitage, T37 100m and 400m champion at Rio, to retire at 30, and Will Bayley yet to recover from damaging the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee on Strictly Come Dancing.
Some of the stars of 2012 and 2016 likely won’t be back at their best, but there are plenty of candidates to take their place. Amy Truesdale, a double world champion in para-taekwondo, is eager to make her mark in the event’s Paralympic debut. The men’s wheelchair basketball squad are equally hungry contenders, buoyed with renewed confidence following World Championship victory in 2018, and with scores to settle following a disappointing bronze in Rio. Equally emblematic of a refreshed Paralympic regime is Charlotte Henshaw. Henshaw has switched from swimming, where she already has a silver and a bronze medal, to paracanoeing, where she’s now a two-time world champion tin the VL3 200m.
The postponement has come at an interesting time for Team GB, given the perceived decline in our Olympic camp since Rio, and the many new faces looking to make their mark in the Paralympics. Now’s not the time for bold assertions about our prospects, especially when the IOC haven’t even confirmed when in 2021 they hope the Games will take place. And for the time being, we’ll be deprived of the indicators that help us make these calls, with the sporting calendar all but wiped out. But we can be safe in the knowledge that the foundations for another very successful Games are in place: we’re well-prepared, well-funded, and we can rely on a versatile and impassioned sporting culture. At some point, we’ve got to admit to ourselves that we’re not punching above our weight, or simply riding on the wave of London 2012’s legacy. We’re here to stay, and even if Tokyo doesn’t prove as fruitful as Rio, there will be plenty to cheer about.