Great Britain shatters medal expectations at London Games; 'best performance ever'

Martin Rogers
Yahoo! Sports
Sir Chris Hoy celebrates victory in the final of the men's Keirin. (Getty Images)
Sir Chris Hoy celebrates victory in the final of the men's Keirin. (Getty Images)

LONDON – Great Britain was already celebrating its "best Olympics ever" on Tuesday, even with five days of London 2012 still remaining.

A sixth career gold medal for cyclist Sir Chris Hoy, Britain's most decorated current athlete after being knighted by the Queen, ensured the host nation's run of success continued, smashing its pre-Games predictions and taking the country's medal tally to its highest mark at any Olympic Games since 1908.

"I think it is the best performance ever," said organizing committee chief Lord Sebastian Coe. "And who knows how much better it could get?"

Back in 1908, only 22 nations competed and Great Britain romped to 56 golds and 146 total medals. However, many events had few, if any, competitors from other countries, tilting the odds drastically in its favor.

At the end of Tuesday the GB team had won 22 golds, prompting Prime Minister David Cameron to shower them with praise.

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"This really has turned into a golden summer for Team GB, and for the whole of the United Kingdom," Cameron said. "I think our athletes, both individually and as a team, can be incredibly proud of what they've achieved."

But what is the glut of success down to? And how has the world's 22nd most populated nation, and a perennial underachiever in sports, suddenly burst toward the forefront of the Olympic spotlight?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, money is a major part of its upturn in fortunes. In Atlanta in 1996, the Brits won just one gold medal, when legendary Olympic rower Sir Steven Redgrave won the fourth of his five consecutive Games titles.

A year earlier, however, Britain implemented the National Lottery funding program, an initiative that diverts proceeds from a state-run lottery game in areas such as sports, arts and the environment. In the 17 years since, it has plowed more than $6 billion into sports, from grass-roots level to elite-athlete funding. The fruits of that influx of support could not be seen in time for Atlanta, but the impact of the lottery money would soon be felt.

Alistair Brownlee (L) and Jonathan Brownlee celebrate after winning the gold and bronze medal in the Men's Triathlon (Getty Images)
Alistair Brownlee (L) and Jonathan Brownlee celebrate after winning the gold and bronze medal in the Men's Triathlon (Getty Images)

In Beijing, Britain finished fourth overall in the medal count and set its sights on climbing to third behind the United States and China this time around. Primarily due to a remarkably poor performance from Australia, it is likely to do so with ease.

Hometown support also has played a factor in the British success in London. The roar of a crowd is a great intangible that cannot be explained by science, yet there is no question that the local athletes have, for the most part, been uplifted rather than pressured by the cheers of their compatriots.

Men's tennis singles gold medalist Andy Murray is one of the more stark examples. Beaten into submission by Roger Federer's smarts and brilliance in front of a genteel Wimbledon final crowd four weeks ago, he smoked the same opponent in the Olympic final as a flag-waving, screaming and thoroughly pro-Murray audience put patriotism above politeness.

Furthermore, the Brits have been smart about the way they have targeted the Olympic improvement. Much like the Chinese state program in the lead-up to Beijing, they put special importance upon events that met two criteria: Sports that did not have a well-established and highly lucrative professional structure – but also offered a high number of potential medals – were seen as rich pickings for medal accumulation.

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Track cycling fell neatly into that category, and the results have been mightily impressive. Of the 10 track events contested, GB has picked up seven gold medals, one silver and one bronze. While cycling can be a lucrative sport in mainland Europe, most of the riches are given to road cyclists who compete in events like the Tour de France. Even then, the Olympic men's road race also was won by a Brit, 2012 Tour winner Bradley Wiggins.

Tuesday began with a British gold in the men's triathlon as Alistair Brownlee crossed the line first, then needed to be taken away in a wheelchair and received medical treatment, delaying his presentation ceremony for more than an hour.

More gold followed in the equestrian dressage team event at Greenwich Park, while Laura Trott won the combination women's omnium event on the cycling track at Olympic Park.

But it was the victory for Hoy that perhaps meant the most to this nation. Hoy earned the prestigious sports personality of the year award in 2008 after claiming three golds in Beijing and has attracted an army of fans due to his personality and good nature.

"People want to know the secret of the success, but you can't pinpoint it," Hoy said. "A lot of it is the investment that happened 15 years ago. It is a privilege to be part of the whole era and seen it develop over the years."

Britain agrees.

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