Tracey Crouch is Minister for Sport and Member of Parliament for Chatham and Aylesford.
You don’t have to be a sports fan to appreciate that the Rio 2016 Olympics has been an incredible ride in a sporting journey that started some time ago. Over the past few week’s Team GB’s performance has exceeded expectations and been absolutely sensational.
There were many, post London 2012, that predicted we would never see such success at an Olympic Games again and that there would be a long-term hangover following the amazing party that was our home Olympics, but they were wrong. Not only did they underestimate the dedication of the athletes but also the commitment of a Conservative Government that understands what drives success.
Britain made history out in Brazil, becoming the first nation to follow a home Games with an even better performance at the next one. So how did Team GB do it and what will the wider impact of their success be?
The athletes, of course deserve the plaudits. Their dedication and commitment is absolutely unwavering, getting up at the crack of dawn come rain, wind or shine, pushing themselves to the absolute limits for years leading up to the Games, so that there is nothing left to chance when they reach the start line. Everything is geared up so that they are in the best shape both physically and mentally. But that is not enough. They are supported by a world-class elite sport system that involves coaches, physios, nutritionists, analysts and mentors all who work tirelessly to keep on pushing the boundaries, looking forward on what improvements can make the difference when it comes to the biggest competition of them all.
All this success is supported, if not part owned, by the British public have play their part through the National Lottery. The Olympic team at Rio has been backed by record funding of £274 million from the National Lottery and government, that goes to our elite sport agency UK Sport, who make calculated decisions on how to distribute that cash to ensure Team GB has the best chance of success at a Games.
It is a system that is proven to work – Beijing, through to London, London through to Rio – with a professional approach that keeps being improved upon.
But it has not always been that way. If we cast our minds back to Atlanta in 1996 we finished 36th in the Olympic medal table with only one gold medal and we were looked on with pity from the rest of the sporting world.
However, the introduction of the National Lottery by John Major with sport – both grassroots and elite – as a key beneficiary changed all that. In 1997 UK Sport was established to focus on getting British athletes on podiums through lottery and government investment. Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004 saw improvements with Britain finishing 10th in the medal table with 28 and 30 medals respectively. We have continued to improve ever since.
Prime Ministers and Chancellors have understood the importance of sporting success and what it means in wider economic and long-term health terms. That is why, when other budgets were being challenged, sports funding remained. Tennis rackets, bikes and swimming costumes will have been bought over the last two weeks due to the success in Rio. Kids will have pestered their parents to sign them up to a club inspired by an individual athlete or successful team. And I am sure savvy local councils will take advantage of the feel-good factor and offer something different that will help improve the physical activity of their communities.
Rio has shown once more how sport can lift the spirits of the nation and bring the country together and as part of my Government sport strategy, published last December, we’re going to use Team GB’s success to encourage even more people to get involved in sport.
Our Rio heroes will play their part, too. Next Saturday the public will get the chance to take part in sport alongside Team GB stars at thousands of local ‘I am Team GB’ events across the country. And I urge as many people as possible to get involved.
It is fantastic that this Team GB homecoming is happening on a local level across the country ahead of the celebrations in Manchester and London that the Prime Minister announced last week that will take place after the Paralympics.
Team GB symbolises what is fantastic about the Union: athletes from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, coming together under the British flag, all pulling in the same direction. As the Team GB motto from this Games declared: ‘Bring on the Great’. Our athletes made the nation proud, with the whole of the UK cheering their performances – from Glasgow to Gateshead, Belfast to Bournemouth.
Our athletes are fantastic role models and in the run up to Rio they gave over 1700 days back, to visit local sports projects and schools up and down the UK, reaching over 750,000 young people. The likes of Max Whitlock, Adam Peaty, Laura Trott, Nicola Adams and the whole hockey team will have inspired many young people at home to get involved in sport with their incredible performances and subsequent humble and gracious interviews afterwards.
The Rio 2016 Olympics was indeed an incredible ride on a journey that began under John Major and in the coming weeks it will be our Paralympians turn to shine. The country will be right behind ParalympicsGB just as we were Team GB.
Across Government we can learn lessons from the success of TeamGB and build upon it in other areas of policy. But for me, when the final curtain closes on Rio 2016 at the end of the Paralympics I will ensure all involved in sport in this country will work hard to keep the momentum up, using the unique power of sport to benefit as many people’s lives as possible.