Four years ago at the conclusion of the Summer Olympic Games in London, Team GB exceeded all expectations as it won 65 medals, including 29 of them gold and finished number three on the medal table in its best Olympic performance since 1908, when it won a whopping 146 medals (56 gold) while hosting the Games for the first time and finished at the top of the medal table for the first and only time in its history.
It was all so brilliant as we watched the United Kingdom’s great athletes perform brilliantly and achieve so much for themselves and their country as the host nation in that golden summer, which was made all the more special because it occurred during the Diamond Jubilee year of Her Majesty the Queen, who memorably “parachuted” into Olympic Stadium with James Bond during that spectacular opening ceremony created by Danny Boyle.
For my part, I watched that ceremony and much of the Games with much interest because of the fact that is was being held in the UK and because of the potential for phenomenal sporting success for the country I had come to love and appreciate over the years. Of course, I was all for Team USA and cheering them on with gusto, but whenever Team GB was not in competition with us, I was rooting for them to win. That summer, I was not disappointed, and nor were the British people, who came together as one and poured out their tremendous support for the home team and helped to motivate them to a stunning performance which impressed many people and hopefully inspired a generation.
And yet, as impressive as the 2012 medal haul and sporting performance was, expectations were kept in check for the Summer Games this year – not least because they were being held away from the UK, in Rio de Janeiro. On a personal level, I believed that while Team GB would do well enough to get at least 50 or so medals and therefore exceed its last away Games medal tally of 47 (19 gold) at Beijing 2008, they would probably not replicate the London accomplishment. UK Sport, which distributes government and lottery money to various sporting disciplines and individuals for the development of British athletic talent, set more modest expectations by having a target of 48 medals.
However, this didn’t appear to dampen the spirits of those participating in the Games themselves as they walked with pride into Olympic Stadium lead by defending tennis champion Andy Murray with the Union Flag in hand. Perhaps they knew that achieving the success from four years previously would be difficult to accomplish away from home, but at the same time, they also had a belief in themselves to accomplish something special and knew that their team had been increasing its medal count in each successive Olympics since Atlanta in 1996, when it finished 36th in the medal count with 15 medals (one gold). Indeed, it was the performance from these Games which caused the government to increase funding for athletics in the UK and culminated in the success of London 2012. Now coming off of that, there was at least some expectation that in Rio, Team GB would have its best overseas performance at a summer Olympic Games, if only by a few medals.
The first few days of competition were a bit slow, with Britain winning one gold medal via swimmer Adam Peaty in the men’s 100m breaststroke and six overall through strong silver and bronze medal performances in swimming, diving, and shooting. Then on Day 5 – August 10th, Team GB doubled its medal haul with two gold medals earned by Joe Clarke in canoeing and the diving duo of Jack Laugher and Chris Mears in the men’s 3m synchronized springboard (Great Britain’s first-ever diving gold), along with four silver medals in cycling, shooting, judo, and gymnastics. Now with 12 medals (three gold), Team GB broke into the top ten at No. 9 and was doing better than at this point in London by three medals.
Over days 6-8, the trickle of medals from the first few days turned into a stream as Britain came up strong in some of its core disciplines. In cycling, a team consisting of Philip Hindes, Jason Kenny, and Callum Skinner won gold in the men’s team sprint, as did both the men’s and women’s squads for the team pursuit, which featured Sir Bradley Wiggins, Steven Burke, Ed Clancy, and Owain Doull on the men’s team, and Katie Archibald, Elinor Baker, Joanna Rowsell, and Laura Trott on the women’s team. Meanwhile in rowing, more gold came home as Helen Glover and Heather Stanning defended their London title and took the top position in the women’s coxless pair event on the same day as the men’s coxless four team (Alex Gregory, Constantine Louloudis, George Nash, and Mohamed Sbihi) did the same in their event, followed by a British triumph in the men’s eight race. Additionally, ten silver medals and one bronze medal were awarded in rowing, canoeing, rugby sevens, equestrian, gymnastics, athletics, cycling, and swimming.
Finishing off this round was probably the most spectacular moment of the Games for Britain as Mo Farah competed to defend his title in the men’s 10,000 meter race, during which he became tangled up with another runner and fell on the track, but quickly got up and soldiered on to win the title once again in his signature “Mobot” style to the rapture of the enormous crowd in attendance.
Day 9 came around on August 14th, and it was here where Britain struck gold in a big way and proved itself worthy among its competitors as a host of individuals massively added to the growing haul.
Gymnast Max Whitlock earned two gold medals during the men’s floor and pommel horse events (the first Olympic gold’s for Great Britain in gymnastics and the first same-day double gold since Hugh Edwards in 1932), and Justin Rose became the first golfer to win gold in 112 years following the absence of an Olympic golf tournament during that time period. In cycling, Jason Kenny topped the competition during the men’s sprint event and Andy Murray successfully defended his London title to become the first person to win back-to-back Olympic gold in individual tennis. Three more silver medals were won in sailing, gymnastics, and cycling on this day which became known as “Super Sunday” (in reference to the “Super Saturday” four years ago) and marked the point when Team GB – having added eight medals in total – leaped into second place in the medal standings between the United States and China.
Over the next two days, another 12 medals were added, including four gold’s from equestrian Charlotte Dujardin defending her 2012 title in individual dressage, sailor Giles Scott in the men’s finn race (extending a Team GB winning streak started by Iain Percy in Sydney 2000), and cycling couple Laura Trott and Jason Kenny in the women’s omnium and men’s keirin, respectively. More silver and bronze medals were earned in boxing, gymnastics, cycling, athletics, and diving during those days as well when Team GB smashed its pre-Games target of 48 medals and therefore exceeded its tally at Beijing.
This was followed by a no-medals day, but for the final days of competition, Team GB was a medal-winning machine. Alistair Brownlee finished the men’s triathlon with gold, followed by Saskia Clark and Hannah Mills doing the same in the women’s 470 for sailing, Jade Jones defending her title in the women's 57kg for taekwondo and equestrian Nick Skelton came on top in the individual show jumping event. The women’s field hockey team triumphed over the Netherlands to win gold in their sport, along with Liam Heath in canoeing, Nicola Adams in boxing, and Mo Farah finishing out the gold rush by defending his 5000 meter racing title and therefore winning a double-double by defending two titles. Another nine silver and bronze medals were won, including the one bronze impressively earned by the women’s athletics team (Eilidh Doyle, Anyika Onuora, Emily Diamond and Christine Ohuruogu) for the 4X400 meter track relay on August 20th, which took Team GB across its London medal haul of 65, and one silver earned by Joseph Joyce the next day in men’s super heavyweight boxing, which was Team GB’s last Rio medal and brought its final medal tally to 67 – 27 gold, 23 silver, and 17 bronze.
So Team GB did not replicate their London success; they exceeded it, and in supreme fashion.
In terms of statistics, the story of Great Britain and Northern Ireland at Rio 2016 is one of exceptional achievement built upon the successes and hard work of the last 20 years since Atlanta 1996. In 19 out of 31 sports, the team medaled and had athletes standing on the podium – a strike rate of 61%, which increases to 76% when the sports they did not contest are stripped out, but even then, Britain still managed to win a gold medal across 15 sports – more than any other country, including the United States, though it won more medals overall in 22 sports.
In 23 of the 25 sports it participated in, Team GB met or exceeded its medal targets and nine Olympians successfully defended their titles from 2012. Cycling was easily Britain’s most dominant sport with 12 medals won and all 15 members of the track cycling team winning a medal. Here, Jason Kenny became the most successful Briton in Rio, winning three gold’s; his fellow cyclist and fiancée Laura Trott became the most successful British female Olympian in Rio upon taking two gold’s. In both the men’s team pursuit and the men’s team sprint, the track cyclists made it three straight titles for Great Britain. Sir Bradley Wiggins emerged from Rio with eight medals in total throughout his Olympic career, making him the first Briton to do so, and veteran Mark Cavendish won his first-ever medal at these Games.
Outside of cycling, rowers won their fifth consecutive title in the men’s four and in rowing overall, Team GB topped the standings with three gold medals. Rower Katherine Grainger became the first British woman to win medals at five consecutive games upon winning silver in women’s double sculls and Jessica Ennis-Hill put up a strong performance to finish with a silver in the heptathlon, and even though they came up short defending their London titles, they still represent some of the finest that Britain has to offer and are still winners in many ways. Indeed, Britain was so good in some events, it won multiple medals in the same event, such as when Jonathan Brownlee won silver in the men’s triathlon to follow his gold medal-winning brother, Alistair.
Other significant achievements were that of gymnast Amy Tinkler winning bronze in the women’s floor exercise as Britain’s youngest Rio Olympian, who at the age of 16, was born at around the same time as when Britain’s oldest Rio Olympian, equestrian Nick Skelton, had broken his neck and went into temporary retirement before winning his first gold this year. Additionally, Bryony Page took silver in trampoline gymnastics and Sophie Hitchon did the same in the hammer throw – becoming the first Britons to do so in those events, and with respect to gymnastics overall, Great Britain came third behind the US and Russia.
Indeed, far from experiencing a post-2012 dip, Britain became the first country to increase its Olympic medal haul immediately following the summer Games it hosted, it became the second of two nations (Azerbaijan being the other) to consecutively increase the number of medals earned through five Games, and remains the only country to have won gold at every summer Olympics since the inception of the modern Games in 1896.
This was an astonishing feat by itself, but what made it greater was the fact that with 27 gold medals, Great Britain finished in second place on the medal table, ahead of China, which has grown into be an Olympic powerhouse since its return to the Games in 1984 and topped the medal table when it hosted the Beijing Games in 2008. When Britain did jump to second place and overtook China on August 14th, it was met with a mixture of celebration, amusement, and surprise; many people – even those counted among the biggest Team GB fans – couldn’t believe what had happened and had very reason to believe that China would come back to take second place by the end of the games, after it was expected to win several medals in key areas, such as badminton and table tennis.
However, as far as I could see, the UK got out in front of China and did not look back – never surrendering the second place spot for the remainder of the Games as China finished with one gold medal less and wound up in third place. Despite having more medals overall at 70 to Britain’s 67, the International Olympic Committee orders medals based on number of gold, silver, and bronze medals, with gold taking first precedence before the others. In fact, Team GB actually had two gold medals less than they did in London, but China had an even steeper dip in its medal count and this helped to upend almost all projections for it going into the Games and placing Britain on top of it. In short, Britain overperformed, China underperformed, and this paved the way for Britain’s most successful non-boycotted Olympics in over a century and may mark its ascension to being a sporting powerhouse in its own right.
What was amusing about this development was the response from the Chinese state media, with the English-language Twitter account of the state news agency Xinhua sending out an agitated tweet which said: “You’re kidding me? The country which has never finished above China is about to.” That was deleted, but another tweet vented frustration toward the gymnastics team, saying that they had “suffered the worst Olympic flop.” One person in the CCTV comments section wrote that while he understood that China could not topple the United States, he appeared rankled at the prospect of having to compete with the United Kingdom for second place. Still yet, another state commentator bemoaned in disbelief that their country had fallen behind “a small island country troubled by separatism.”
However, this attitude was balanced by other voices in the media and public which appeared to be more gracious and even relaxed, with one article in the Global Times suggesting that most people were “unfazed by the sluggish medal winning” and quoted a Beijing sports sociology doctor who said that ‘the time in which we relied on sports to show our strength or prove our reputation is over.’
That’s a decent attitude to have because after all, the Olympics comes down so often to individual achievement and initiative, because for all the support provided by the government, it is the individual who must decide to put in the time and effort to simply start riding a bike, get in a pool, do some back flips, run some laps, among other things, and for many people, making it to the Games is an achievement by itself and the medals are just the icing on the cake.
That being said, there is nothing wrong with having patriotic pride in ones national team at the Olympics, so long as it’s not done for reasons of claiming some sort of natural (and race-based) supremacy or looking down on other countries as inherently inferior. Indeed, there is nothing wrong with this in general for much the same reasons, but as we saw with some in Chinese media and public, there was incredulity at the idea of the UK overtaking them in the medal table and references to a “small island country” are reminiscent of an incident at the 2013 G-20 Summit, where a spokesman for Russian president Vladimir Putin reportedly dismissed Britain as a “small island no one listens to.”
Well, Britain is a small island country, but as I have said in a previous post, it is – and has been – a small island with big influence for various reasons extending beyond Olympics success, and this was on display at “British House” during the Rio Games. Located at Parque Lage near the Christ the Redeemer statue, British House functioned as the UK’s official residence in Rio for the Games and served to showcase the UK in terms of its strengths and abilities in business, culture, innovation, music, arts and sciences, sports, and several other areas to those who may be interested in investing in the country and visiting it. This was also a place to be celebrating British Olympic success, where Sir Chris Hoy, fellow former and current Team GB athletes, and others enjoyed themselves as the Games took their course (and it was here where Andy Murray almost poked Princess Anne with the Union Flag during the team photo-op on the steps to the building).
It was great to see them having a good time, and just as well, to see the host nation was doing well too. Despite all the problems going into the Games, Rio managed to pull off a rather successful Olympics without serious disruption or issues with regard to its preparedness, and though Brazil sat outside the top ten in the medal count, it did manage to beat both its previous gold and overall medal records. What likely mattered however was having the Games there and watching their best athletes on display on home court. Nowhere was this more evident than in the realm of football (soccer), where Brazilians poured their hearts out for the national team and cheered them on to victory and their first gold medal in that event.
Meanwhile closer to home, I was very happy to see Team USA perform as well as it did in exemplary fashion – watching the weighty contributions and significant achievements of Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky dominating in the swimming pool, Simone Biles making her mark in gymnastics, Allyson Felix and Justin Gatlin on the track, and USA basketball dominating on the hardwood for the third straight time. In terms of medals, I was proud for the USA to have won 121 medals (46 gold, 37 silver, and 38 bronze) – the most ever for non-boycotted Games – topping the medal table again for the second consecutive time and the fifth time in the last six games, while leading in the overall medal tally for the sixth straight time.
However, there was a bit of sadness knowing these would be the last Olympics for the legendary Phelps, who is perhaps the greatest Olympian of all time with an impressive 28 medals (23 gold), as well as for Jamaica’s Usain Bolt, a legend in his own right as the World’s Fastest Man three times in a row. Both men put on spectacular displays and showed a love of country, but within the spirit of good sportsmanship (as seen when Bolt paused an interview during the London Games for the US national anthem), which is the Olympic ideal in many ways.
Rio 2016 was quite special as an American for what we achieved there, but I also enjoyed watching other countries do very well, especially my second country. Yes, it has been going through a lot – internal and external – over the past few years, but that did not stop it from putting on the very successful London Games and exceeding expectations in the competition. For that matter, we’ve got our own issues in the US that we’re dealing with, but that didn’t stop us from participating in and engaging with these Games. If anything, the Games are an opportunity to shine a bit of color, light, and relief in an increasingly complex and stressed world.
With regard to the UK this year, it put on a fantastic performance via the efforts of its athletes, and I have to believe that it had to have made people proud to be British because of the effort put forth by these Olympians – so much of it backed by the public at home to help realize their dreams – who represented so many different backgrounds, religions, and ethnicities throughout the United Kingdom and came from all parts of it, showing the power of this Union not only of nations, but of people, which of course belongs to all of them.
Here at Rio was but a sample of the rich and diverse country that is Britain today, and showing what can be achieved when the British people work together and devote their energies in a collectively great civic and patriotic effort - where resources are pooled and shared effectively to make fantastic things happen. This was seen as the athletes expressed a love of country and exhibited the indomitable British spirit, strength, and character, which is not a mark of national supremacy, but rather an attitude and a way of doing things which has seen the country through and beat expectations time and time again, and surely will see it through going forward in Tokyo and beyond.
So congratulations to Team GB on a job well done and I hope all Britons may be able to take part in an I Am Team GB event on Saturday and attend the parades that are to come, because the achievements of the UK's Olympians and what it took to become one ought to be commemorated in appropriate fashion throughout the land.