Sport Soccer

Tuesday 20 March 2018

Show us the money: how Lotto millions got British in the medals

Team GB came 36th in the 1996 Olympics but an impressive second in Rio. What can they teach Team Ireland after an Olympics shrouded in controversy

Rio highlight: Gary O'Donovan and Paul O'Donovan of Ireland celebrate their silver medal in the Men's Lightweight Double Sculls in Rio
Rio highlight: Gary O'Donovan and Paul O'Donovan of Ireland celebrate their silver medal in the Men's Lightweight Double Sculls in Rio
Andy Murray with his Rio gold
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

Ireland's athletes deserved credit for their efforts in Rio as they tried to keep themselves focused as the Olympics Council of Ireland was engulfed in controversy over tickets.

There was disappointment that Ireland failed to win gold, but when you look at Ireland's modest haul of medals over the decades, that is hardly surprising.

It is sobering to think that if you discount Michelle Smith's gold medals in Atlanta, we have only won two gold medals since 1956 - and both Michael Carruth in 1992 and Katie Taylor in 2012 won for boxing.

Winning two silver medals in Rio was more or less average, but a disappointment after London when we won five.

Andy Murray with his Rio gold
Andy Murray with his Rio gold

By contrast, Team GB seemed to carry all before it, winning 27 gold medals, 23 silvers and 17 bronze. Our neighbours put us to shame.

Sports coaches and officials will be studying closely how the British came second to the United States in the medals table.

The most obvious clue to the British success is money. Britain's turnaround in fortunes over the past 20 years has had other countries scrambling to catch up. In 1996, the team won just 15 medals, including a single gold, as dedicated amateurs took on the full-time athletes of Russia, China and the USA. Team GB finished 36th in the medal table that year.

But in 1997, the UK National Lottery started funding athletes so they could train full-time and, by 2004, the medal tally had doubled to 30, doubling again at London 2012 to 65.

Since 2012, Britain has spent up to €500m on Olympic sports. By contrast, under €40m has been spent on Olympic sports in Ireland.

Dr John Considine, an economist at UCC who studies sports funding, says the funding of sport in Ireland is still quite political.

"The Olympic sports have to compete with GAA, rugby and soccer - and those sports still have huge financial clout."

Dr Considine says the British were extremely effective at targeting their investment at sports where they thought they had a chance.

Some of this public funding can be quite ruthless in its effect. Sports such as table tennis and basketball, where it is very difficult to win a podium place, lose out in favour of activities where heavy investment in technology and talent can yield better results.

Britain won 15 of its medals in cycling, and when you look at their facilities in comparison to ours, that is hardly surprising.

Britain has six indoor velodromes while Ireland still has none. Our first indoor velodrome should be built soon as part of the Dublin Abbotstown complex.

The success of the cyclists and other British sports teams is also built on an entire philosophy that sounds like mumbo jumbo - "the aggregation of marginal gains".

The mantra is based on the notion you cannot improve one thing by 100pc, but you can improve 100 things by 1pc.

This philosophy manifests itself in obsessive attention to detail in Team GB.

As well as fitness coaches, the athletes are supported by teams of psychologists, nutritionists, and since London, Team GB has had a sleep coach, Nick Littlehales. In the Olympic village athletes slept on personalised pillows and layered mattresses covered by hypo-allergenic sheets.

In sports such as cycling and sailing, British teams concentrate on such details as water and sweat absorption on the kit. They have worked on special coatings that save seconds in time by repelling the water that can add weight.

The success of Team GB is not all down to money. Part of it is also down to team spirit.

University of Limerick sports psychologist Tadhg MacIntyre says our athletes have to develop the same winning mentality that has become a British habit. "The British have worked very hard at building team spirit and it's no accident. The branding Team GB is strong and they bring together athletes from different sports to train together."

While our top golfer Rory McIlroy pulled out before the Olympics with unflattering comments about the golf tournament, Britain's Justin Rose embraced the Games with open arms and came away with a gold medal.

He was delighted to join in the Team GB events in the Olympic Village, and played a part in raising the spirit of the team with tennis champion Andy Murray.

McIntyre says the British team place a strong emphasis on psychological literacy.

"The coaches are aware of the mental challenge and they know how to deal with psychological distress."

One of the biggest challenges for the team is to retain athletes for a four-year cycle.

"If you get injured, you don't drop out of the system, and if you underperform one year, you are still in. One of the gaps in our system is that we tend to look at everything over one season instead of four."

In Team GB, the coaches place a very strong emphasis on the importance of an athlete's "entourage".

"By entourage, they mean the athlete's family, their partner, the person who is helping them through education and their employer," says McIntyre.

So did external events beyond the control of the Irish athletes affect their performance?

Were the boxers affected by the doping scandal which forced Irish middleweight Michael O'Reilly to be sent home, and others by the ticket scandal involving the Olympics Council of Ireland.

"To have organisational stress would not have enhanced anyone's performance. It is very important to have confidence in the sports system," says Tadhg McIntyre.

"When the doping issue arose, I felt that none of the boxers would win a medal, because the squad are such a tight-knit group. It was like a house of cards. When you took away one the whole thing fell apart."

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