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Will Team GB beat its record-breaking performance in Rio?

Written by on 03/08/2021

Team GB got off to a flying start at Tokyo 2020, winning five medals in the first five days.

But disappointing results in top-funded sports like rowing mean that Great Britain is now underperforming relative to previous Games.

Team GB won a record 29 golds at London 2012 and had its best ever medal performance at the last Olympics in Rio.

So, as we head into the last few days of this year’s Olympics, how likely is it that Team GB will deliver a record medal haul in Tokyo?

If they continue on the current trajectory of around four medals a day, Great Britain will fall short of the record 67 medals won during the last Olympic Games in Rio.

Team GB are even further from setting a new record for gold medals. To beat their performance in 2012, they would need to more than double the current number with only around a third of the time remaining.

Back in 2018, Team GB had ambitious plans to smash previous records with a target of between 54 and 92 medals. But this was revised down to between 45 and 70 in June to reflect the “extraordinary circumstances” of the last year.

It’s not impossible that Team GB could deliver record-breaking wins, however. Around 30% of gold medals will be handed out over the last four days of the Games, including historically heavy-hitting events for Great Britain like track cycling.

But fewer medals in rowing and a poor outlook for athletics mean that Tokyo 2020 is unlikely to be a record-breaking Olympics, says Dr Borja Garcia, a senior lecturer in sports management and policy at Loughborough University.

He said: “I think probably it’s not going to get to the Rio levels and they are almost certainly not going to get to the level of China as they did in Rio because it seems to be that China has invested more.

“But it is going to be a very acceptable performance in terms of results, although some people might argue that the amount of money invested should have a had a better return.”

This year, the introduction of new sports such as BMX have boosted Great Britain’s ranking.

Meanwhile, traditional big-hitters like rowing have disappointed, with no golds for the first time since 1980 and the weakest overall medal performance since 1972 – a surprise given that it was the top-funded sport in the lead-up to this year’s Games.

Funding for the UK’s top athletes largely happens through UK Sport. Every four years it distributes around £350 million from the government and National Lottery to the sports thought to have the best chance of medal success.

This “brutal but effective” funding model favours individual events with a lot of medal opportunities and means that certain sports – such as rowing and cycling – consistently receive the most funding, says Mr Garcia.

He said: “UK Sport follows a ruthless approach, which is really to invest only in sports that have a realistic chance of delivering medals… which has a tendency to favour the status quo.”

The bias towards certain sports is clear in the data.

That’s not set to change before Paris 2024, as the year-long delay to Tokyo 2020 means that the budget has already been decided.

This has potentially benefited underperforming sports like rowing, which comes second only to cycling for new investment.

A continuous pipeline of funding is a critical for winning medals. This presents a “difficult Catch-22 situation” for newer sports, says Dr Daniel Plumley, lecturer in sport finance at Sheffield Hallam University.

He said: “UK Sport have to be strategic about where they think the medal prospects are but that means ultimately that some sports will always miss out or not have much funding allocated.

But funding for Paris 2024 does signal a slight step change, with budget cuts of around 10% to some of the top-funded sports.

Mr Plumley said: “Diversity and broader engagement against a wider participation group certainly appears to be at the heart of this decision.”


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