Better Never Stops. The grammatically suspect Team GB slogan from the gilded London Games may not make much sense but it does at least capture the sense of perpetual motion of the medal machine that has made them one of the most copied and feared squads in Rio de Janeiro.
When Chris Froome, fresh from winning his third Tour de France, lines up alongside Geraint Thomas, Adam Yates, Ian Stannard and Steve Cummings in a cycling road race that will finish against a spectacular backdrop along Copacabana on Saturday he will embody just how far Team GB has come since the humiliation of Atlanta in 1996.
When it comes to precious metal and golden moments, Britain now expects rather than hopes. Where once a handful of golds sated our hunger, we have become a nation of gluttons.
“With Froomey, what he’s done, everyone’s going to be talking about us and expecting a lot. We’re just looking forward to racing it. We’ve just got to be aggressive, be on the front foot,” Thomas said this week at the British School in Rio, hired by the British Olympic Association to give its athletes and support staff somewhere to train away from the Olympic Village. “We’ve got the riders but Froomey is playing the cards. Having those numbers is key. Hopefully it can pan out the way we want.”
The attention to detail that has been a defining feature of a march up the medal table that reached its apex in London – when British athletes reached heights they had not scaled for more than a century – was still on show when the first batch of the 366-strong team arrived here in the Olympic Village to find Team GB plasterers and plumbers upgrading their digs.
There is much mumbo jumbo written and talked about the culture of marginal gains. Yet it is undeniable that a relentless focus on excellence and the construction of a high-performance system replicated across multiple sports that can make prime talent less reliant on flashes of individual genius, have been key to the quiet confidence displayed by those involved since they touched down in Brazil.
The journey began in the wake of humiliation in Atlanta in 1996 when Britain finished in 36th place in the medal table, below the likes of Algeria and Kazakhstan, and prompted then prime minister John Major to divert Lottery funds to elite sport.
A second key turning point came in 2005, when the then UK Sport performance director Peter Keen and the redoubtable then chair Baroness Sue Campbell went to see the chancellor, Gordon Brown, in the wake of London winning the right to host the Olympics. They showed him a piece of paper that outlined how many medals Team GB could win in London and how much it would cost to underpin the journey to get there. Brown agreed to a huge increase in funding and seven years later, Team GB delivered exactly the number of medals in the presentation clutched by Keen and Campbell: 65.
In the afterglow of London, UK Sport – the funding agency that has poured £350m of lottery and exchequer funding into Olympic and Paralympic sport over the last four years – set the bar insanely high, vowing to become the first host to better their medal tally at the Games that followed.
That “more medals in more sports” mantra was later downgraded to the more manageable target of beating the 47 medals won in Beijing to make this Britain’s best away Games.
Taken together, the funded Olympic sports, which benefitted from a £274.5m investment over four years in a time of public-sector funding cuts, have been set a target range of 47 to 79.
Among the boffins with their virtual medal tables, Gracenote has predicted that Team GB will hit third with a haul of 56. At Wolverhampton University, Professor Alan Nevill’s mathematical formulae has predicted they will fall just short of their target with 46.
Either way, responsibility will rest heavily on the usual suspects, those technical “sitting-down sports” of rowing, sailing and cycling in which Britain has come to lead the world even as rivals snap at their heels in a well-funded arms race.
Yet there is also fervent hope and expectation that new heroes will emerge to join those that wrote themselves into the history books in London. Adam Peaty in the pool is a very good bet to be one, while there are high hopes for a gymnastics squad expected to deliver between three and five medals.
Max Whitlock, one star of a sport that has bloomed thanks in part to heavy investment, says that success brings new pressures – but that they are welcome ones.
“What calms me is that I have competed in the biggest arena, with the most amount of people supporting GB at London 2012,” he said. “I can look back at that, I can look back at the world championships and go forward from there. I’ve done the biggest of the biggest and the next step is obviously Rio.”
Britain’s gymnasts, rowers and cyclists will be expected to generate the momentum that can be carried into the second week, when their track and field colleagues will pick up the baton (insert your own British relay team-related joke here) and aim for a makeable target of seven to nine medals.
And yet cycling, lauded so highly for its part in the British Olympic revolution and for being one of the few sports to successfully marry elite success with participation increases, also represents the unquantifiable loss of innocence from the heady days of the surprise Beijing haul and that sugar rush of endless medals in London.
Mired in controversy following the departure of performance director Shane Sutton and the commencement of an independent review into its culture and practices that will report after the Games, this week’s controversy involving Lizzie Armitstead’s missed tests has added to the general malaise around the sport.
As Sir Bradley Wiggins, one of the defining heroes of 2012, targets the medal that would see him overhaul Sir Chris Hoy as Britain’s most decorated Olympian it can feel as if the poster child for the marginal gains, high-performance revolution is finally feeling the pressure.
Liz Nicholl, the UK Sport chief executive, insists not. “They have managed the situation. There is a review ongoing that won’t be completed until after the Games,” she said. “They acted quickly to put management arrangements in place. The athletes just want to concentrate on competition.”
Then there is the ennui hanging over the Games in general as a result of the Russian doping crisis and its ham-fisted resolution by the International Olympic Committee, corruption allegations in boxing, wider doping concerns on the track and in the pool and so on.
There can be no return to innocent wide-eyed wonder. Back home, in the wake of Brexit, the country remains bitterly divided – it all feels a long way from the bonhomie and warm inclusivity of London 2012.
However, UK Sport chiefs and politicians, who have already guaranteed funding at a similar level for the Tokyo cycle, are adamant that British medal success in Rio can help heal those wounds and bind the nation back together. “To succeed in elite sport takes a massive commitment, huge drive and focus. That sense of achievement is something we can celebrate,” Nicholl said.
Speaking in Rio, the sports minister, Tracey Crouch, insisted the investment was still a most worthwhile one: “The great thing about sport is that it completely overrides politics most of the time. Once the Games start, people will just get behind their team. All the political chat about Brexit will disappear and people will just focus on the sport.”
One of the great unsung legacies of Beijing and London is that it appears to have largely settled the question of whether public money – increasingly drawn from the lottery rather than the treasury – should be used to fuel the drive for elite sporting success.
But there are other questions that hang over the incessant quest for more medals. Where does it stop? Is each medal somehow less valuable the more we win? At what point does public investment in elite sport meet the law of diminishing returns?
In his recent book Success and Failure of Countries at the Olympic Games, Danyel Reiche points to a study that suggests “once governments identify elite sport success as a policy objective they are locked onto a path from which it is increasingly difficult to deviate”.
On the eve of a Games that will again deliver golden moments for Team GB, Nicholl is in no doubt that maintaining the status quo is something to be celebrated when the bar is set so high in sports in which we have excelled. Meanwhile, the hope is that others such as fencing and rugby sevens can join the party.
“To win multiple medals is one thing but to be world-leading in your sport is a huge achievement. The rest of the world is investing and getting more sophisticated. The majority of sports are seeking to maintain their medal potential. We’ll be there or thereabouts,” she said.
Back at the British School, Froome – who will also go for gold in the time trial next week – reflected on the pursuit of Olympic gold and why it remains, despite everything, the ultimate goal. “For us, the Tour really is the pinnacle of our calendar every year, but the Olympics is different and bigger in a different way. It’s all the sports, it’s the whole world watching. It’s special. It’s an honour to be an Olympian.”