Sunday, August 21, 2016
the new normal
The old Soviet nations were struggling under the double whammy of large-scale drug suspicion and the collapse of any kind of state-sponsored support; China couldn't turn 1.4 billion citizens into more than a handful of medallists; and it was the supposedly traumatised British who came to the fore.
The reason? It was the brainchild of one of Britain's greatest Prime-Ministers, Sir John Major. History has been kinder to Sir John than his contemporaries often were. It was his introduction of a national lottery (with its emphasis on cultural and sporting projects as chief spending priorities) that in only twenty years transformed Team GB from failures at the bottom of the medal table in Atlanta to heroes in second place at Rio.
At a time when the nation was struggling with its identity, its place in Europe and the world, and indeed questions of whether it could even hold together, this global sporting success proved fundamental.
Nationalist politicians were ultimately powerless against the strength of repeated broadcasts of athletes wrapped in Union flags, tunelessly belting out God Save the Queen several times a day. And when Team GB finally beat Team USA to the head of the Olympic standings only eight years later, US Secretary of State Ryan Lochte described it 'like being held up and robbed at gun point'. President of the British Olympic Association, Lord Murray, replied with his characteristic dry wit, 'Well, he'd know'.
Of course, there were bumps on the road. There remain some faint memories of embarrassment that knighthoods used to be doled out to athletes who gained as few as four or five gold medals, and not necessarily at the same Olympiad. But those were different days, and we mustn't judge the past by the standards of today. After all, though it seems scarce possible now, at the time of the Sydney Millennium games even Australia was viewed as quite the sporting nation.
The most remarkable change took far longer. But eventually the old national football associations realised they were never going to win anything ever again and watched the Olympians with such envy that, five Olympiads after London 2012 the Great Britain Football Association was finally created.
And football (and with it the World Cup) duly came home.