How Super Saturday at London 2012 paved the way for Rio success

That night, the head of UK Sport convinced David Cameron elite sport funding must be sustained – meaning some sports lost out

When Sue Campbell sat next to the prime minister on Super Saturday at London 2012, she had one thing on her mind. It was an intervention that has led directly to Great Britain leading China in the Rio 2016 medal table and crashing through a target of making this its most successful “away” Games days before the closing ceremony.

Amid the afterglow of what remains one of the most sensational 46 minutes in British sporting history, the then chair of funding agency UK Sport, Lady Campbell, argued that the money poured into ensuring that the hosts were not embarrassed at their own party must not be a one-off.

“It was Super Saturday. Seb [Coe] was sitting next to the prime minister and had to go and do Jess’s gold medal ceremony. Jeremy Hunt was asked to sit on the other side, but he was insistent that I went and sat next to the prime minister,” recalls Campbell, now tasked with repeating the successful UK Sport formula at the Football Association as head of women’s football. “We discussed how elite sport was funded and why it was critical to sustain it at that level.”

Baroness Campbell
The head of UK Sport in 2012, Baroness Campbell. Photograph: John Robertson/Commissioned for the Guardian

The very next day, David Cameron, bathing in the warm glow of the achievements of Mo Farah and company, announced that the funding formula that had delivered success in Beijing and London would be maintained for the next Olympic cycle in Rio. In fact, in an attempt to ensure that Britain became the first country not to experience a serious comedown after its Olympics as the system relaxed, key staff drifted away and funding was cut, the amount for Olympic sports was marginally increased, from £264m to £274m. Taking the Paralympics into account, the overall investment swelled to £350m. A separate pot of about the same amount has been invested in grassroots sport through Sport England over the same four-year period, with more mixed results.

Simon Gleave, head of sport at data analysts Gracenote, has predicted that China, castigated in its own media for a disappointing performance compared with its own home Games in Beijing and then London, will eventually just pip Team GB for second place in the medal table. One crucial factor in the final result is likely to be the “six pointer” in the diving pool when Tom Daley takes on Chinese favourite Qiu Bo in the 10m platform event.

Gracenote also predicts that Team GB will probably just miss out on topping the 65 medals they achieved in London, with 23 golds compared with 29 four years ago, which would still be a phenomenal result.

The continued success is partly a result of maintaining investment but also a sustained belief in the system that has been created to support it. In other host countries there has also been a tendency to re-examine the priorities for spending on sport in the wake of a home Games. That happened in the UK too, with a post-Games review to determine whether the “no compromise” approach fostered to deliver success in Beijing then London was too extreme, particularly with sports such as basketball that arguably delivered a wider benefit than could be measured in precious metal falling off the programme .

The verdict was that UK Sport was essentially on the right track when it came to elite sport, though there was a wider admission by the government that grassroots sport was stuttering amid evidence of stalling participation figures and local authority cuts. For UK Sport, there was also more money to go round, with some sports that were funded for the first time in London, such as handball and volleyball, dropping off the funding programme because they were unlikely to yield medals at the next two Games in Rio and Tokyo.

So levels of funding were maintained or increased for those sports, such as cycling, sailing and rowing, that had underpinned the rise up the medal table from 36th in Atlanta in 1996 to 10th in Athens in 2004, then fourth in Beijing and third in London. In cycling, already high expectations have been exceeded by the likes of Sir Bradley Wiggins, Jason Kenny and Laura Trott with 12 medals secured and every member of the track cycling squad that competed winning at least one. Younger riders such as Callum Skinner and Owain Doull suggest the future is bright in one sport where Britain has vastly outspent but also consistently outsmarted its rivals, leading some to mutter darkly about the means by which it is being done.

Team GB cyclists Katy Marchant, Rebecca James, Jason Kenny and Laura Trott pose with their gold medals from Rio.
Team GB cyclists Katy Marchant, Rebecca James, Jason Kenny and Laura Trott pose with their medals from Rio. Photograph: Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

But funding levels were also increased for those sports that had shown that by applying the same mindset that had been introduced to cycling, rowing and sailing by an idiosyncratic, driven generation of performance directors, including Sir Dave Brailsford, Sir David Tanner and Stephen Park, they could yield similar results. That has been the case in sports such as gymnastics, which has delivered six medals, and diving, in which Team GB has won three with Daley’s individual event still to come.

Cameron was not the first to find Campbell hard to say no to. One of the unsung heroes of the revolution in British Olympic sports since the lottery funding tap began to flow, she said that aside from the sustained funding – which comes 75% from the National Lottery and 25% from the exchequer – another key decision had been to extend the timeline on which decisions were made from four to eight years. That meant that athletes who might win a medal at the Games after next were also taken into account when funding decisions were made.

“When I arrived in 2003, decisions were taken on a four-year funding cycle. Peter Keen [the then performance director] thought it should be longer and I convinced the then secretary of state, Tessa Jowell, to change that to eight years, and that was a key thing. Max [Whitlock] and all the gymnastics boys were among those who benefited from that,” she said.

Another key factor was a more discerning focus on which athletes to fund. “The other thing was going to a very athlete-centred funding model. We went from vague plans to specific plans for individual athletes,” said Campbell, who left UK Sport after the London 2012 Games and was succeeded by Rod Carr.

A wider debate will follow about how best to ensure that success at the elite end is replicated in grassroots sport, which faces far wider and more complex societal and funding challenges.

Mark England, the Team GB chef de mission for the past 14 years, has said the team dynamic in Rio is the “best ever”, also admitted that some sports “missed the boat” after London. “The legacy thing is interesting. In many respects, a lot of sports missed the boat after London,” he said. “It isn’t about standing up and cheering and shouting at the television or on the trackside or the poolside. It’s about actually – whether it’s the local authorities or Sport England or the government sectors – investing.”

He said that a new sport strategy introduced by the government last year should start to bear fruit in terms of applying the lessons learned in elite sport to the grassroots. “For some sports, it slipped away. But there is a real determination now that they’ve got a second bite,” said England. “These are ordinary kids doing extraordinary things who live around us and breathe around us and travel on the same trains and the same tubes and go to the same gyms.”

For Campbell, too, the question is not whether Britain should be maintaining its investment in elite sport but whether the same rigour and focus can be applied to investment in the grassroots. “We’re a nation that needs reminding that when we’re given the chance and the right investment, we can do pretty special things,” she said. “We are at our best when we’re working together. Every four years, this is just brilliant. The public love it. It lifts the country. It raises our belief in our nation and ourselves.”


Owen Gibson in Rio de Janeiro

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