Those responsible for investing £350m in British sport since London 2012 have claimed success in Rio will help unite the nation in troubled times, after setting a target of winning more medals than ever before at an overseas Games.
Immediately following the success of the London 2012 Olympics, in which Team GB finished third in the medal table with 65 medals including 29 golds, the funding agency UK Sport set the ambitious target of becoming the first host nation to win “more medals in more sports” at the Games that followed.
But over the past 12 months it has steadily edged away from that aspiration and has now set a target of at least 48 medals, bettering the total in Beijing in 2008. The target medal range, based on its analysis of the latest performance data, is 47 to 79.
UK Sport’s chief executive, Liz Nicholl, said the target of 48 medals did not represent diminished ambition given the earlier promise made in the wake of the London Games.
“It was, and still is, our aspiration. Sixty-six is within range, it is within sight. But when we look at the statistics, we know it’s not probable. But it’s still possible if everything goes well,” she said. “Our focus on 48 is because we must all acknowledge that would be a great success for the sporting system. It would be a historic result.”
Nicholl does not regret setting the original target: “In London we came together like never before and there was always the risk that once we came through London everything could have dissipated. It was important that we agreed collectively that there was an aspiration to do better.”
She emphasised the progress that had been made since 1996 in Atlanta, when Great Britain came 36th in the medal table and won a solitary gold, prompting the influx of National Lottery funding. “I think it’s a great opportunity for sport to unify the nation in quite a challenging time. You saw that with Andy Murray’s success at Wimbledon,” she said.
“That’s what we hope to do, to make everybody proud. I don’t think we expected the whole nation to be as proud as they were in London. But those medal moments are very special. They surpassed whatever other issues might be going on in society and brought everyone together and made them proud to be British.”
Athletics has been set a medal range of seven to nine, while cycling will target eight to 10.
UK Sport said the recent problems within British Cycling that led to the departure of the performance director Shane Sutton would not hinder its medal chances.
The British Olympic Association chief executive, Bill Sweeney, also said he believed success in Rio would help heal the rifts caused by the European referendum campaign.
“It definitely makes a difference. Sport transcends boundaries. You saw the day after Andy Murray’s win, there were a number of headlines in the press about, ‘Good news for a change’, and this helps to unite the nation’,” he said.
“There’s no question that the referendum has created rifts within our society and I think sport [gives us] an opportunity to celebrate, rather than worry about an uncertain future.”
UK Sport’s chairman, Rod Carr, said: “I have no doubt whatsoever that when British athletes win in Rio it will have a major uniting force for the nation as a whole.”
Simon Timson, the UK Sport performance director who will leave to take up the same role at the Lawn Tennis Association in October, said other nations had caught up with Britain’s high-performance system and he expected the battle for medals to be intense.
Sweeney hopes for a gold medal haul in the “high teens or early 20s”. In London, Britain won 29 gold medals. “High teens, coming back with fourth place in the table and a best ever away Games in terms of total medals, I think we could be pretty happy with that,” he said.
For the Paralympics, UK Sport has set a medal target of at least 121 medals, surpassing the number achieved in London, within a range of 113 to 165. “The medal target is certainly an ambitious one, and we believe we can achieve a medal tally that falls within this range,” said the British Paralympic Association chief executive, Tim Hollingsworth.