Sporting endeavour and enthusiasm of the intensity and scale we have witnessed over the past week is truly inspiring.
Olympic Games have this effect on people: we readily immerse ourselves in a particular competition’s progress, empathise with individual athletes and stay glued to our TV screens until the medals, not six- or seven-figure cheques, are won.
Most Britons have been prepared to set the nation’s economic woes aside for a fortnight and embrace Olympic fever with a passion; it’s to be hoped that post-Games, this contagious fervour remains undimmed.
If so, London’s much-talked-about legacy could have an enormously beneficial impact upon the country’s health and general well-being.
However, zeal and enthusiasm can only transport an Olympic legacy so far; the crucial ingredient required to embed it permanently in our way of life is money…
In his captivating autobiography, A Lifetime in a Race, Olympic champion Matthew Pinsent recalls a time, before the 1996 Atlanta Games, when athletes were always asked to contribute to the cost of an overseas trip.
“For a European regatta, the athlete contribution was in the order of £100,” he writes. “For a championship, it might be five times that.”
Twenty years ago, the prevailing attitude of many sports administrators towards competitors perpetuated such arrangements.
Yet Atlanta represented a nadir for British sport, and not just Olympic disciplines.
“Money changed for everybody in rowing after Atlanta,” observes Sir Matthew. “Part of the fallout of such a poor performance in the Games overall was that lottery money started coming on line…almost overnight the number of people training full-time increased.”
Indeed, Great Britain’s performance at the 1996 Olympics had a huge impact upon the way in which the nation’s sport was organised and funded. The establishment of UK Sport, in January 1997, was a radical move designed to distribute funds generated by the National Lottery into ‘elite’ sports.
To begin with, these were sports such as rowing, cycling and sailing where Britain was perceived as having a very good chance of securing Olympic medals.
Initial funding levels were modest – between 1997 and the Sydney Olympics in 2000, UK Sport distributed £74million – but the results were impressive. Whereas Britain won one gold in Atlanta, it secured 11 in Sydney.
Between 2000-2012, UK Sport distributed a further £656m and our Olympic performances have improved markedly as a result.
Significantly perhaps, away from the Olympics, two other under-funded sports, both run by largely amateur committees and each dear to the nation’s hearts, had also endured long periods when it appeared that the rest of the world was leaving them behind.
Also in 1997, however, both made inspired appointments, recruiting men to lead the national team and reorganise how each sport was run.
While Olympians could now tap into National Lottery funding, both cricket and rugby appointed men with strong business backgrounds to help them compete at international level.
Sir Clive Woodward’s campaign to win the 2003 Rugby World Cup began when he was appointed the RFU’s first full-time professional coach in 1997.
He noted that although the RFU employed some 130 staff, “the flaw here was that they were employed on a part-time basis and were not accountable for success at any level.”
Woodward, who had run his own successful business, immediately decided to “focus all of our resources on the elite (England) squad.” As with UK Sport, the move, though not whole-heartedly embraced at first, proved apposite.
England’s World Cup-winning coach changed a prevailing international rugby culture which valued squad participation above all else and created a fresh attitude which concentrated on winning at the highest level.
In October 1998, Woodward wrote an internal document for his elite players and called it This Is England. In his introduction, he reminded them that they were in the business of inspiration.