Team GB must deliver more than just medals at 2020 Olympics in Tokyo | Paul MacInnes

British Olympic Association sets new goals that will include currying favour with the hosts and inspiring future generations

The slogan of the British Olympic movement used to be straightforward and decidedly unsentimental. Now, as the countdown to Tokyo 2020 reaches a year to go, “no compromise” has been replaced by a new and gentler slogan: “Medals and more”.

After the unprecedented success in Rio three years ago, when Team GB brought home 67 medals from their most successful Games for more than a century, it is probably sensible to manage expectations of a repeat performance. So when UK Sport and the British Olympic Association talk about next year they do not put numbers on their targets and speak in broad terms of reaching the “upper echelons” of the table. Quite what they mean when they talk about “more”, however, remains largely unknown.

A few clues as to this new direction were shared at a briefing in Bisham Abbey last week. The National Sports Centre is where Katharine Grainger once kept a small room while she was training with her sculls. Now Britain’s most successful female Olympian is the chair of UK Sport and is presiding over a shift in policy that looks to maintain the medal success of the past decade but broaden the scope of focus beyond a four-year Games cycle. There is also an external aspect to the strategy which, in Tokyo, will mean Team GB aiming to become the “second-most favoured team” and performing de facto acts of diplomacy.

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“We are more sophisticated than just a single binary medal target now,” says Chelsea Warr, UK Sport’s director of performance. “The best description I can give is ‘medals and more’. This is medals plus plus. We want to see Team GB and Paralympics GB in the upper echelons of the medal table. We want to see more medals and more medallists to inspire the nation. Of course we want to do well and, actually, we will. The team will do a really, really good job. But I think it would be a bit of a tragedy if we judged the whole success or failure of the high performance on medals.”

Warr’s emphasis is now on a more long-term approach, one that will be part of the new UK Sport “blueprint” for athletes that will come into effect after the Tokyo Games. It will see a shift in the focus of funding from a four-year cycle to eight years, in part a response to a backlash against the current model which denies funding to sports deemed not to be genuine medal contenders. (It also reinforces a British strength; no country is better at getting medallists to repeat their success at the next Games). In another new initiative there will be a renewed emphasis on athletes using their position as role models to have a greater influence on the grassroots.

The Olympic rings are displayed at the Olympic Square next to the National Stadium in Tokyo.
The Olympic rings are displayed at the Olympic Square next to the National Stadium in Tokyo. Photograph: Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty Images

“One of the things we learned in our public consultation last year was that the nation wanted to keep winning but also to leverage the impact of those incredible moments a bit more,” Warr says. “Mostly that is through our athletes and the stories they can tell. Their messages about overcoming adversity and working as a team, their ability to set massive, audacious goals and pursue them are great messages for everyone in society to relate to. So those of us in the high performance system are asking how we can use these stories in a much wider way.”

Spreading the good news will not be limited to these shores. One of the observations the British Olympic Association made about the experience of Rio – and, of course, the home Games of London – was the positive impact that good relations with the local population can have on performance. Make a good impression while you are there, went the logic, and the crowds in the stadiums will get behind you.

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“We don’t want any of our sports to go into Tokyo without giving something while they’re there,” says the BOA’s chef de mission, Mark England, charged with organising Team GB’s presence in Japan. “The hockey team was in Hiroshima just last week, our swim team gave huge support to the Yokohama schools network. Making Britain the ‘second most-favoured team’ is absolutely a stated mission of ours. It’s hugely important to us.”

This strategy will, England hopes, be borne out by the logistics. Team GB will be based in Tokyo’s neighbour city of Yokohama for the Games, with 85% of the athletes residing on a new campus 40 minutes’ drive from the Olympic Village. A team of local volunteers, dubbed “Go GB”, has been set up to offer support, there is a partnership with Keio University in Tokyo, which will provide accommodation and training facilities, and an elementary school will become the Team GB “performance lodge”, a centre for training in the run-up to the Games. In return the British plan not only to ingratiate themselves with the locals but to leave a “legacy” of refurbished real estate and sporting equipment.

If some of this sounds like outreach in a time of diplomatic uncertainty, then Britain’s Olympic nabobs are not denying it. If it is also a case of doing more with less in an age of austerity, then these publicly funded bodies have no choice but to go along with it. Quite how far the “leverage” of Team GB’s success can go remains to be seen but another strong Olympic performance 365 days from now would certainly not hurt.

Contributor

Paul MacInnes

The GuardianTramp

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