Aidan Smith: Entering uncharted territory as sporting superpower

As the Rio Games came to a spectacular finish, it was Team GB who claimed the title of sporting superpower. Picture: Getty Images
As the Rio Games came to a spectacular finish, it was Team GB who claimed the title of sporting superpower. Picture: Getty Images
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The sporting prowess of Team GB is deserving of praise but it does have echoes of Cold War politics, says Aidan Smith

What a moment yesterday to wake to television pictures of a stern woman in a tracksuit with a running track behind her, looking for all the world like my secondary school’s old PE dragoness Miss Fotheringham, who declared that Britain was now officially a sporting superpower.

Who, us? Silly old soppy old plucky old Britain? Who, despite putting up more than a jolly good show at the last Olympics, has always seemed better suited to the role of the gallant loser, the game striver? And who is certainly not used to seeing Big Ideas avoid farce, deliver on promise and turn to gold?

London 2012 was great but we were playing at home and so knew how to swim the Serpentine, negotiate its sluice gates and memorials to tragic princesses, and how to sail our island seas. Rio would be trickier. No Danny Boyle, 007 and HM. Instead, host apathy, the zika virus and drugs. No nation had ever gone from staging the Games to bettering its medal tally next time round.

But look at us. Or as the screeching BBC cheerleaders would have it: LOOK! AT! US! The Big Idea was to pick up the baton from London and be even faster, higher and stronger in Rio. And we were. First gymnastics gold medal. First diving gold medal. First medal in the women’s hammer, first in the trampoline. First brothers to win gold and silver in the same event. First man to win eight medals, first woman to win five.

Five Olympics on the bounce now we’ve increased our medal haul, another unprecedented global feat.

From Atlanta in 1996, humiliatingly, we returned home with a Games lapel badge (fake) and a rusty washer. Yesterday we looked down on all the other competing nations bar one from the top of Rio’s Sugarloaf Mountain. Incredibly the final table confirmed us in second place, ahead of China.

Only America won more and indeed I’m not entirely sure the result should stand. Is it too late to lodge a complaint against the United States in overtime and claim the top spot? Surely America has to be penalised for Ryan Lochte and some of the US swim team’s entitled frat-boy misdeeds in that gas station, when they tried to deflect attention from their vandalism by claiming to have been robbed at gunpoint? I mean, Lochte & Co didn’t just pee on the garage forecourt, they peed in the green pool from the highest board and all over the Olympic ideal. A recount, please.

See what just happened? Medal lust got the better of me. It’s not enough, apparently, that we beat into third place a one-party Communist state which can pick its athletes from a population of 1.39 billion. We want to be No.1 and Tokyo 2020 can’t come quickly enough.

Mind you, beating China was quite something. This is a nation which, eight years ago at its home Games in Beijing, rewarded each of its 51 gold medalists with a bonus of 500,000 yuan – now almost £60,000 – and a house.

The moment when Britain overtook China to go second in the table was duly noted with this gasping tweet from the state-owned news agency Xinhua: “You kidding me? The country which has never finished above China is about to … ?”

The truth – and it’s one which would-be sporting supremacists like Britain should heed – is that a good number of those 1.39 billion have started to question the wisdom of China investing so much in Olympic super-success. “There has been a very strong backlash among the general public against the pouring of so much time, energy and money into what was for many years a massively corrupt state-run sports administration system,” the vice-president of China’s Olympic committee said last week.

Even before the final tally of Rio’s precious metal, Britain was being likened to the Cold War Commies it once ridiculed for using sport to promote, and boast about, their way of life being the best. In those days there wasn’t much difference between a display of military hardware by an old Eastern Bloc country and a parade of its athletes, and you wouldn’t have wanted to mess with a Soviet shot-putter, male or female, any more than you would a Soviet tank.

We’re not going to go to that extreme, are we? Because I’m not sure “superpower” is really the right look for us. We got into difficulties once before trying to lord it over the rest of the world. But I must admit to enjoying the thought that other nations, envious as hell, might be concealing tiny cameras in hat-brims to spy on our sporting excellence as they wonder how we got so good at cycling or even cared about gymnastics.

Cheating has been implied. We’ve been accused of going after “soft” medals, of targeting the sports where clanking boxfuls are available to win, and of splashing a borderline-obscene amount of money to fire us up the table – bashing Australia (national sport: winning), Germany (they rarely lose) and our old foes from Russia out of the way in the surge to the summit. Well, they’re lucky this wasn’t It’s a Knockout because we would have definitely played our Joker.

Each medal has cost £4.1 million to bring home. That’s a lot if it doesn’t inspire those who’ve gorged on Doritos through the late-night broadcasts to get fitter, or if it doesn’t help reduce obesity in children. These were problems around the time of London, which the success of 2012 was supposed to combat, but they’re still problems now.

Issues like the high proportion of privately-educated athletes will be examined over the next four years, as will the lack of recognition given to popular inner-city sports like basketball. The rival nations we’ve left in our dust-cloud will undoubtedly come back stronger in Tokyo. But right now, having opened our legs and shown our class, having taken a Bob Beamonesque leap, second feels pretty good.