Three cheers for John Major. British success at the Tokyo Olympics is the direct result of decisions he made in the 1990s as Prime Minister.
In the Summer Games held in Atlanta in 1996, Great Britain took only one gold medal (Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent in the coxless pairs) and dropped to 36th in the medal table, by far the worst performance this country has ever recorded.
Major responded by setting up the National Sport Academy, with funding of £100 million from the National Lottery, itself launched a couple of years earlier at his behest.
There could be no question of providing that sort of support out of tax revenues. Many Conservatives, many taxpayers and indeed the Treasury itself would have regarded that as an intolerable use of public funds.
East Germany (which had just been swept away) might engage in that kind of thing, but it wouldn’t do here.
Which was why Major backed the setting up of a National Lottery. Many people found the whole idea a bit vulgar. It would encourage the poor to gamble, and would relieve them of their money in order to support good causes, cultural as well as sporting, selected by the rich.
Major brushed these objections aside and set up the Lottery, which proved immensely popular, and could be drawn on for the funds needed to transform British performance in many Olympic sports.
There was a further large injection of funds by Tony Blair once London had won the 2012 Games, with the taxpayer this time making a substantial contribution.
The financial transformation which began in 1996 meant the best coaches in the world could be hired for the long period of time required to recruit and train champions, often at least ten years:
Dame Katherine Grainger, the gold medal-winning rower who now chairs UK Sport, was among the first cohort of athletes to benefit from the decision in 1996 by the prime minister, John Major, to channel Lottery money to sport.
“Rowing managed to get an early foot in the door thanks to Steve [Redgrave] and Matthew [Pinsent] winning in Atlanta, so when I joined the team in ’97 I was one of those who was helped by the new funding,” Grainger told The Times. “It utterly transformed what was possible. There had never even been a full-time coach of the women’s team before and suddenly we had one — and medical support too.”
Selected athletes such as Grainger also received a grant to allow them to concentrate on their sport — until then her older team-mates “either had jobs or debts, or both”.
The first gold under the new system was won by the track cyclist, Jason Queally, early in the Sydney Games [in 2000]. Grainger’s first Olympic medal followed a few days later — a silver. As with Tom Daley [in Tokyo], her gold did not arrive until her fourth Games.
At the Beijing Games in 2008, the fruits of this approach became conspicuous. Britain finished fourth in the medal table, followed by third place in London in 2012, second in Rio in 2016 and at the time of writing sixth in Tokyo.
These places recall the earliest seven Summer Games, from Athens in 1896 to Paris in 1924, when Britain finished fifth, third, sixth, first (in the London Olympics of 1908), third, third and fourth.
We have become about as competitive now as we were a century ago, after a long intervening period when British amateurism saw some remarkable individual successes, but overall a failure to nurture talent and enable our athletes to take on the world.
Something has been lost. Amateurism in its best sense – doing something for the love of it – is life-enhancing.
Professionalism can become so narrow and utilitarian that it destroys the soul.
But at the highest level, one may say that this distinction breaks down. The best amateurs are determined not to be slipshod. The best professionals love what they are doing.
Major was a sport-loving Prime Minister, which is one reason why he wanted to take practical steps to ensure that Britain would never again finish in 36th place.
Readers uninterested in sport – or indeed repelled by sport, perhaps as a result of unhappy experiences in childhood – may consider the pursuit of Olympic glory to be a frivolous matter.
But the remarkable changes which have taken place in this field still prompt the question of whether, in other fields of endeavour, it is possible to pick winners, or employ coaches who will pick and nurture winners, with long-term investment rewarded by long-term success.
Several points immediately obtrude themselves in answer to that question.
One is that in the Olympics, we know how to define success. It means winning medals, and investment since 1996 has generally been concentrated in a ruthless way on those sports which offer the best chances of doing so.
A second point is that Olympic sport is inherently elitist. Some people are far better at it than other people.
Schools, clubs and training organisations which take an elitist approach are more likely to produce champions. One may hope that the rest of us will be inspired to have a go too, and will therefore enjoy happier and healthier lives, but there can’t be any of that nonsense about all shall have prizes.
And yet there is also a necessary element of teamwork. A whole family may make sacrifices so that one member of it has the best possible chance of getting to the top.
And so may a whole team of athletes. A competitor who succeeds in Tokyo may benefit from a tradition which has developed over the last hundred years.
But nothing is certain. The element of chance can by careful preparation be reduced, but cannot be eliminated.
Major’s initiative has proved so successful in part because he was working with the grain of human nature. On the whole, we would prefer to win.
Harold Abrahams, a brilliant British sprinter who also set records in the long jump, won the 100 metres in the Paris Games of 1924 in part because he employed at his own expense a professional coach, Sam Mussabini.
Lord Coe, who won four Olympic medals, served as a Conservative MP, chaired the London Games and is now President of World Athletics, said in 2012 that Major’s “greatest achievement was to change the face of sport in this country with the National Lottery”.
For a wonderful account of other parliamentarians who have won Olympic medals, the reader is referred to Stephen Parkinson’s piece for ConHome on Tory Olympians, published in 2012.